GENEVA (Reuters) - A World Trade Organization panel has partially backed a Mexican complaint about U.S. rules restricting imports of Mexican tuna, potentially opening the door to tuna imports for the first time in 20 years.
The United States stopped selling Mexican tuna in 1991, citing complaints that the fishing techniques used by its neighbor were hurting the local dolphin population.
But Mexico said the claims were unfounded and complained to the WTO that U.S. labeling rules discriminated against Mexico by preventing its tuna exports from being marked as “dolphin-safe,” therefore blocking them from the U.S. market.
The WTO panel said the U.S. rules did not discriminate against Mexico but they were more restrictive than they needed to be to meet the goals of informing consumers and protecting dolphins.
Most canned tuna sold in the United States is certified as dolphin-safe, meaning that it has been caught using fishing methods that do not harm dolphins.
The United States said it might appeal the decision. If it appeals and Mexico wins again, the United States could come under pressure to change its rules to allow Mexican imports or face possible trade sanctions.
U.S. trade activists seized on the ruling as an example of overreaching by the WTO and predicted public outrage.
“A WTO tribunal is telling American consumers that having the product labels that we rely on to make sure our shopping and dining choices do not result in dolphins being killed is a WTO violation,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“These are labels that apply to domestic and foreign tuna alike that we pushed our Congress to pass,” she said.
Andrea Mead, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, said Washington was relieved “the panel rejected nearly all of Mexico’s claims” and found the goal of protecting dolphins was legitimate.
“The United States is very concerned, however, that the panel found the U.S. measures to be more trade restrictive than necessary to achieve the objectives of the measures. We are carefully considering all of our options with respect to this finding, including an appeal,” Mead said.
Mexico complained in its case that the U.S. labeling provision effectively prevents Mexican tuna from entering the U.S. market even though Mexico meets the highest international standards for the protection of dolphins.
In a statement on Thursday, Mexico’s economy ministry said the WTO panel backed the idea of a separate dolphin-safe label proposed by Mexico to certify its tuna.
Mexico has argued that complying with the terms of the U.S. label would be more costly for the Mexican fleet without providing additional protections for dolphins.
World Growth, a nongovernmental organization that promotes globalization, said the decision was a milestone.
“It is clear that if this decision is not appealed, the growing trend toward using environmental standards as trade barriers should be significantly curtailed,” it said in a newsletter.”
Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Doug Palmer in Washington; Editing by David Stamp and Vicki Allen