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U.S. Dolphin Safe-Labeling Requirements Found Compliant with WTO Rules

In Major Win, U.S. Rights Vindicated After Years of Litigation with Mexico

Washington, D.C.—The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative today announced that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has issued a complete and resounding victory for the United States in finding that U.S. “dolphin-safe” labeling requirements comply with WTO rules. 

For years, the United States has been defending its dolphin-safe labeling requirements in WTO dispute proceedings brought by Mexico, whose stakeholders employ a tuna fishing method involving chasing and capturing dolphins in nets. The United States has long argued that its requirements do not discriminate against any country.

The WTO panels have now decisively rejected Mexico’s claim that the United States discriminates against Mexican tuna product produced by chasing and capturing dolphins.  Instead, the panels found that the United States’ environmental measure does not discriminate; the labeling requirements prevent Mexican tuna product produced by chasing and capturing dolphins from being inaccurately marketed to U.S. consumers as “dolphin safe.”

“I am pleased that WTO panels have finally agreed with the overwhelming evidence that U.S. dolphin-safe labeling requirements are accurate and fair,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.  “The Trump Administration is committed to defending U.S. rights to enforce environmental measures that protect wildlife and facilitate fair trade.”

 

Background

Since 2008, Mexico has challenged the U.S. dolphin-safe labeling requirements as WTO-inconsistent because the requirements deny the label for tuna product produced by chasing and capturing dolphins (“setting on dolphins”). This is the fishing method that the Mexican fleet often elects to use to catch tuna.  In the original proceeding and the first compliance proceeding in this dispute, the WTO panel and Appellate Body did not agree with Mexico that setting on dolphins is “dolphin safe” but found that certain aspects of the U.S. labeling requirements were WTO-inconsistent.  The United States strongly disagreed that its labeling requirements breached WTO rules. However, to address the WTO findings, on March 22, 2016 NOAA issued an Interim Final Rule (IFR) that made changes.  The findings released today confirm that the dolphin-safe labeling requirements as amended by the IFR are consistent with relevant WTO obligations.

Separately, on May 22, 2017, following an arbitration proceeding based on the requirements that existed as of 2013, Mexico received WTO authorization to impose countermeasures on U.S. products at a level up to $163 million per year.  To date, Mexico has not applied any countermeasures on U.S. exports. 

The findings released today confirm that, because U.S. dolphin-safe labeling requirements are consistent with U.S. WTO obligations, Mexico should not be entitled to impose the countermeasures on U.S. goods.

After years of litigation, today’s panel reports demonstrate that U.S. dolphin-safe labeling requirements do not discriminate against any imported tuna products and therefore are WTO-consistent.  Under WTO rules, a panel report will be adopted if either party so requests within 60 days of the report’s circulation, or either party may appeal the report before it is adopted.

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