WASHINGTON If you look closely at the can of tuna in your cupboard, there’s a good chance you’ll spot a small label that says “dolphin safe.” In 1990, in a big win for environmentalists, Congress passed a law that created the labels, hoping to assure consumers that their tuna had been caught without using fishing methods that hurt dolphins.
Now those labels might be disappearing, thanks to a ruling by the World Trade Organization, which said they harmed Mexico by restricting global trade. After losing the case on appeal, the United States must respond by July 13.
“Consumers in the U.S. have been clear: They want dolphin-safe tuna, and if we’re not able to label tuna in the way we want to label it, I think U.S. consumers are going to be pretty angry,” said Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington state.
In the most recent development, Larsen and 21 other members of Congress sent a letter in October to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, complaining that the WTO is threatening to turn back the clock to the days when tens of thousands of dolphins were killed each year “in a tuna fishing free-for-all.”
Critics say the WTO is running roughshod over U.S. laws that govern everything from the environment to food safety and public health.
In 2008, for example, Congress approved the Country of Origin Labeling Act. It requires grocers to tell consumers where their meat, fish, chicken and produce came from. But the WTO said the labels unfairly hurt imports from Canada and Mexico.
In 2009, Congress banned flavored cigarettes with its Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The WTO ruled against the United States again after Indonesia complained that the law discriminated against its cigarettes.
Both those cases are ongoing.
Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, a consumer advocacy organization, predicted that the tuna case will go a long way in helping the public understand the expansive reach of the WTO.
“Every kid who gets sent to school with a tuna fish sandwich, having seen the smiling dolphin on the back of the can, is about to have Flipper-murder on their hands if they have lunch again,” she said. “This is one of those few trade cases where everyone can pick up the can, see the label and realize, ‘What do you mean the WTO says we can’t know what’s in our tuna fish?’ “
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