Concluding that “dolphin-safe” tuna product labels authorized by the U.S. Commerce Department “are more trade-restrictive than necessary to achieve a legitimate objective,” a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel has given a partial victory to Mexico, which filed a complaint in 2009 claiming that the labels were illegal because they excluded Mexican yellowfin tuna from the U.S. market and shut down one-third of its tuna fleet.

The WTO panel rejected Mexico’s claim that the U.S. labeling provisions discriminate against its tuna products, finding “that Mexican tuna products are not afforded less favourable treatment than tuna products of the US and other origins in respect of the US dolphin safe labeling provisions on the basis of their origin.” Still, the panel recommended that the United States be asked “to bring its measures into conformity with its obligations” under the Technical Barriers to Trade agreement.  

Mexican Economy Secretary Bruno Ferrari reportedly responded to news of the ruling by stating that it is “a crushing blow to the label ‘dolphin-safe’ and opens the way for Mexican producers to enter the U.S. market without restrictions, as is their right.” The United States may appeal the ruling, and Ferrari speculated that, if it did, a final ruling would not be issued until late in the first quarter of 2012. “If such an appeal is again unfavorable and the country chooses not to abide by an adverse ruling, Mexico would have the right, under the rules of the organization, to impose trade retaliation,” he said.  

The U.S. advocacy group Public Citizen apparently predicted a WTO backlash; a spokesperson said that a prohibition on these labels “is among the few things likely to unite Americans across the political spectrum.” See Associated Press, September 15, 2011.