About Us

  • Eyes on Trade is a blog by the staff of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch (GTW) division. GTW aims to promote democracy by challenging corporate globalization, arguing that the current globalization model is neither a random inevitability nor "free trade." Eyes on Trade is a space for interested parties to share information about globalization and trade issues, and in particular for us to share our watchdogging insights with you! GTW director Lori Wallach's initial post explains it all.

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July 26, 2012

Senators Defend Dolphin Protections Threatened by WTO Ruling

On Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) led a bipartisan group of 14 Senators in sending a letter to Rebecca Blank (Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce) and Ron Kirk (U.S. Trade Representative) expressing concern over last year's WTO tuna-dolphin ruling. The statement noted that while "cruel and lethal" tuna-fishing methods have killed over 6.5 million dolphins in the past six decades, the U.S. "Dolphin-Safe" tuna label has contributed to an amazing 98% decrease in such dolphin deaths since 1990.  As such, the Senators made clear that, despite the WTO's determination that "Dolphin-Safe" constitutes a trade violation, Congress intends to stand by current dolphin protection laws:

“We are deeply disappointed by the WTO’s final ruling, but we stand firmly committed to preserving the Dolphin-Safe label. Let us be clear--Congress has no intention of repealing or weakening the current law applying to this label.”

The Senators also sent a letter to Arturo Sarukhan Casamitjana, the Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S., requesting that Mexico comply with the U.S.’s request to hear the case under NAFTA. The letter expresses the Senators’ disappointment that “Mexico has continued to stall consideration of this issue under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” and urges Mexico to proceed with selection of NAFTA dispute resolution panelists so that the case can be resolved in a more timely manner.

These letters follow an impressive House letter, sent in May, urging the Obama administration to push back on the tuna-dolphin ruling.

For a more detailed analysis of the tuna-dolphin case, click here.  For the press release from Senator Boxer's office, click here.  

July 03, 2012

America, meet your meat master

Happy Fourth of July! As our fearless leader Rob Weissman articulates in this note here, your holiday meat could be much more mysterious come next Fourth of July:

If you’re looking forward to grilling up some hamburgers and hot dogs, think about this: Where does the food you’re eating come from?

That simple question is going to be a lot harder to answer after a ruling from the World Trade Organization (WTO), which decreed last week that such basic consumer information as country-of-origin labels on meat are “unfair trade barriers” to multinational corporate profits.

If you don’t eat meat, know that the WTO ruling could be extended to country-of-origin labels for produce. So maybe next summer it’s the potato salad and corn on the cob, too.

Like me, you might find this hard to swallow. If you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor, mystery meat (and lettuce) is not my cup of tea.

But it’s standard operating practice for the WTO, which in recent months has proclaimed that U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labels and a U.S. ban on clove-, candy- and cola-flavored cigarettes both violate WTO trade rules.

Last November, I shared some of my thoughts about the WTO's lower panel ruling against the country-of-origin labels (COOL) for beef and pork that were created by the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill. Canada and Mexico had challenged the U.S. law, claiming that it violated their rights under the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). (See here also.)

Last Friday, that ruling was upheld by the WTO's Appellate Body - specifically, by an AB division composed of Ujal Singh Bhatia of India, Ricardo Ramirez Hernandez of Mexico and Peter Van den Bossche of Belgium. In fact, it's the third consecutive WTO attack on a popular U.S. consumer protection or information policy to go down this year. (See the attacks on dolphin-safe labels and cancer prevention through cigarette controls.)

Like in those other cases, the Appellate Body doubled down on key aspects of the lower panels' rulings. And like those other cases, the implications go far beyond the specific measure at issue. Indeed, many other country of origin labels and consumer information policies are now at greater risk of challenge in the future.

We'll go through some of the specifics after the jump.

Continue reading "America, meet your meat master" »

May 31, 2012

Congress Stands up for Dolphins, Pushes Back on WTO

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, joined 42 colleagues in sending a strong letter to President Obama urging him to push back on the recent WTO ruling against dolphin-safe tuna labels.

In a press release, Markey said “The American people deserve to know whether or not the fish they eat was caught by killing Flipper... Dolphin-safe labeling of canned tuna has been successful in protecting the species and giving consumers informed choices.”

The letters calls the WTO decision "misguided," and says that "the U.S. intends to maintain the strong dolphin-safe standards, and not to water them down." The letter goes on:

The implication of the recent WTO ruling ... is that the U.S. should expend significant regulatory resources around the globe in an untargeted fashion, or alternatively, that imports from Mexico could utilize the dolphin-safe labels without having to meet the same requirements as tuna caught by U.S. or other nations' fleets. Neither result is acceptable, and 'complying' in either way simply invites further WTO litigation from other nations, not to mention serious disruption of the canned tuna market in the US and loss of consumer confidence in environmental laws and labels.

The letter included some notable signatories, including:

  • Ranking Members: Berman (Foreign Affairs), Frank (Financial Services), Markey (Natural Resources), and Miller (Ed and Labor)
  • Ways & Means Committee Members: Blumenauer, Doggett, Pascrell, Stark, and Van Hollen.
  • Oceans Subcommittee of Natural Resources Committee: Faleomavaega, Pallone, Bordallo and Pierluisi.
  • Voted for the Uruguay Round Implementation Act (implementing the WTO): Berman, Corrine Brown, Maloney, Markey, Moran, and Waters. Reps. Meeks and Towns - along with Moran, members of the so-called CAFTA 15 for their vote for that trade deal - also signed the letter.

See press release here, and letter here (PDF). See our further discussion of this ruling here.

April 30, 2012

The magic of government and the legitimacy of international legal orders

In the comments section, Scott Lincicome refers to Lori Wallach’s piece in the HuffPo and apparently is ruffled by the tone.

If only you could see what Public Citizen’s membership and our allied organizations wanted us to publish! We were pretty restrained, and actually understating the political damage this ruling will have on the WTO’s long-term legitimacy.

The fact of the matter is that Public Citizen expended a decent amount of energy trying to lay out for the Appellate Body a way through this morass. We thought that (as a legal matter) there was a way that the lower panel ruling could be overturned and allow the institution to save face. In retrospect, I’m not exactly sure why we did this, because the tone deafness of the Appellate Body ruling is startling.

Scott also dislikes our characterization of the WTO ruling as an “order.”

The relevant passage of the HuffPo piece is: “The ruling, issued Wednesday, was on the final U.S. appeal which means that now the U.S. has 60 days to begin to implement the WTO's orders or face trade sanctions.” Some version of that formulation has appeared consistently in our publications throughout the years.

I could “order” Scott to take down his blog, but he would not need to comply with that “order.” At the other end of the spectrum is an “order” delivered at the barrel of a gun or by a vengeful Norse god, with which compliance is strongly advised.

Somewhere in between is that magical thing we call modern government. The Supreme Court doesn’t have an army, but non-acquiescence with its decisions is rare, because elites believe that the benefits in social order (the other kind of "order") outweigh the costs to complying with disagreeable decisions. The Court in turn exercises (typically) great deference to the political bodies, or it becomes politicized and sees its legitimacy damaged.

Likewise, a WTO “order” backed by the threat of trade sanctions is as close to forced compliance as it gets in international law at peacetime. (The Bank of International Settlements or UN human rights agencies don’t have powers like this.) On the spectrum of meaningfulness of “orders,” the WTO is substantially closer on the spectrum to what modern governments do than my order to Scott to abort his blog. Indeed, by triggering political economic consequences, the WTO agreements create automatic constituencies for compliance, in addition to those that think complying with WTO panels is good per se.

The WTO Appellate Body, just like our own domestic Supreme Court discovered in the New Deal era, cannot be blind to how its rulings actually play out in the real world if it hopes to retain its authority.

In this case, I think we’ve laid out pretty well the politics behind the FSPTCA – a menthol ban is unlikely to happen (not because California Democrats want to protect tobacco industry jobs but because of reasonable regulatory distinctions). However, a roll back of a ban on cloves might happen if the administration doesn't stick to its guns.

Those politics are unlikely to change, and the WTO doesn’t require them to in order to begin compliance proceedings.

If, as a practical matter, the only way that U.S. could comply would be exempting imports from incremental regulatory schemes (and thus, yes, leading to more teenage experimentation with cigarettes than would be true with the FSPTCA whole and intact), then the TBT Article 2.1 ruling becomes the same as an order backed by trade sanctions to eliminate or water down the flavored cigarette ban now in place. Presumably, when some U.S. industries are hit by trade sanctions, the demands for watering down the FSPTCA will grow, increasing the likelihood of that outcome over time.

If the AB is going to get in the habit of putting countries’ backs against the wall on sensitive matters of public health, you’re going to see a lot more demands for non-compliance and non-payment of compensation. My question for the WTO’s supporters is how that state of affairs advances your goals.

Again, we were genuinely surprised by the AB’s ruling. We thought that the public interest stakes were very clear (as they were in EC-Asbestos), and that the AB would find some grounds for overturning the lower panel ruling (say on likeness) and thus allowing the institution to save face.

The fact that they were unable to act in self-preservation (and made a political decision that now is having predictable political consequences) is a bad sign for those that hope to see the WTO remain a legitimate force in global affairs.

April 26, 2012

Will DIOCOSEFLRD save tobacco rules from the WTO?

The WTO ruling against U.S. measures to reduce teen smoking continues to make waves, with folks like Daniel Ikenson, Scott Lincicome, and my old trade professor Steve Suranovic weighing in - mostly with straw man arguments or the straight libertarian push for less regulation. These are probably not the folks that have a lot invested in maintaining the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) to begin with.

We've laid out the essential timeline issues with compliance here. One of the more novel arguments for compliance comes from trade lawyer Rob Howse, who has commented on the issue at IELP here, here and here. In addition to recommending an extention of the FSPTCA's ban to menthol (which I've said is likely to be politically difficult if not impossible), Rob has suggested that the U.S. could comply by making a better case that the exclusion of menthol from the ban is justified. Towards this end, Rob advanced a novel interpretation of Article 21.5 of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU), which reads:

“Where there is disagreement as to the existence or consistency with a covered agreement of measures taken to comply with the recommendations and rulings such dispute shall be decided through recourse to these dispute settlement procedures, including wherever possible resort to the original panel. The panel shall circulate its report within 90 days after the date of referral of the matter to it.  When the panel considers that it cannot provide its report within this time frame, it shall inform the DSB [Dispute Settlement Body] in writing of the reasons for the delay together with an estimate of the period within which it will submit its report.”

Rob seems to be saying that, while an Article 21.5 compliance panel could not overturn the AB’s ruling, it might be able to deem that the U.S. is acting consistently with the ruling if it had more data and studies justifying the U.S. approach.

There is a debate as to the legal merits of this argument, but it seems unlikely that the same panel that ruled against the FSPTCA once would think differently a second time around.

Continue reading "Will DIOCOSEFLRD save tobacco rules from the WTO?" »

April 16, 2012

Brazil's flavored cigarette ban now targeted

Unless you're an avid reader of Spanish and Portuguese language news wires, you probably missed Brazil's announcement last month of a ban on all flavored cigarettes: cloves, chocolates, and even menthols. Both importers and domestic firms are subject to the same limits.

Here's the announcement in Portuguese, and some of the earlier history from February, including the draft. The text of the final Brazilian measure reads (rough tranaslation courtesy of Google translate):

Continue reading "Brazil's flavored cigarette ban now targeted" »

April 12, 2012

Sweet surrender?

Over the last few posts (see here and here), we’ve explained the two major findings in the recent WTO ruling against U.S. efforts to reduce teen smoking.

The question inevitably becomes: what happens next?

There is a strong presumption under the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) that the U.S. will begin to remove the ban on clove cigarettes in 60 days, i.e. early June 2012. In this particular case, I wouldn’t be surprised if the WTO urged compliance by August 2012, right in the middle of the U.S. election season. But the outer bound for compliance is likely to be July 2013, or 15 months from the date of adoption of the Appellate Body report.

More details after the jump.

Continue reading "Sweet surrender?" »

April 10, 2012

Cancer prevention three months too soon

Welcome to Week Two following the WTO’s cancerous decision to rule against the U.S. measures to reduce teen smoking. As Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said:

I am deeply disappointed in the WTO’s decision in the clove cigarette case, which has serious public health implications for United States efforts to reduce youth smoking.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA broad authority to protect the public’s health. It also directed immediate action to reduce youth tobacco use, including a ban on clove and candied-flavored cigarettes. Importantly, the law made no distinction in where a cigarette is manufactured because a cigarette -- no matter where it is made -- is addictive and deadly. I believe the WTO’s interpretation is wrong on the merits and wrong in its interference with our efforts to protect the American public from tobacco’s devastating effects.

I am committed to working with the Administration to advance our shared goal of ending the tobacco epidemic among our young people and ensuring that the U.S. ban on clove and candied-flavored cigarettes remains in place.

This is an encouraging sign that legislators may be heeding the call of thousands of Americans who have taken action under the Consumer Pledge urging principled non-compliance with the ruling.

We went over the main part of the decision – rendered by the Appellate Body’s three-person panel of Peter Van den Bossche (Belgium), Ricardo Ramirez-Hernandez (Mexico) and Shotaro Oshima (Japan) – in last week’s post. As we noted, this is the first time that the WTO has found a violation of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Article 2.1.

But there was one major aspect of the ruling that we didn’t get to discuss: the finding that the U.S. violated TBT rules by having the sweet tobacco ban (enacted in July 2009) go into place on September 2009 rather than December 2009. In other words, the WTO found that the U.S. began fighting cancer three months too soon.

Continue reading "Cancer prevention three months too soon" »

April 04, 2012

On Tobacco Appeal Ruling, WTO Shows its Anti-Health Stripes

We’ve done a quick read through of today’s World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Body ruling against the U.S. measures to reduce teen smoking. (For our statement, see here, and for a more detailed background into the lower panel ruling, see our analysis here.)

This is a landmark ruling against one of the few policy achievements of the Obama administration: Rep. Henry Waxman’s (C-Calif.) Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA), which included a targeted measure to reduce teen smoking by targeting “starter flavorings” in cigarettes – like cola, chocolate, strawberry and clove.

The FSPTCA also contemplated an eventual ban on menthol cigarettes, but deferred this for further study. The reason? Not protectionism, nor arbitrary decision making. The reason was because – as we learned with the Prohibition Era with alcohol – banning products consumed by large numbers of adults can create a black market and upsurge in crime if not handled appropriately. Oh, and lest we think that the consumer protection lion Waxman went soft, it was also because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down previous federal tobacco legislation for exactly this reason.

So, wisely, the Waxman bill took a targeted and incremental approach.

But as we pointed out on the blog last September, the key flaw in the WTO’s analysis on whether the FSPTCA discriminated against Indonesian clove cigarettes was that it compared the treatment the FSPCTA gave to cloves and menthol, rather than comparing cloves to cola and other flavors. One of these things – menthol – is not like the other, as Big Bird from Sesame Street might have said. (See killer Big Bird video "app" here.)

The Appellate Body not only did not overturn this aspect of the September 2011 lower panel ruling – it doubled down. Indeed, it seems that the Appellate Body was almost determined to show how poorly suited the WTO is to considering matters of public health. In several key respects, the Appellate Body ruling was even more anti-health than the lower panel ruling.

Continue reading "On Tobacco Appeal Ruling, WTO Shows its Anti-Health Stripes" »

March 23, 2012

Public Citizen Applauds Obama Administration’s Efforts to Defend Consumer Country of Origin Meat Labeling; Appeal of WTO Ruling Necessary First Step

Statement of Todd Tucker, Research Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

 

Public Citizen commends the Obama administration for taking the necessary step of appealing the harmful World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against U.S. consumer labeling. In November 2011, a WTO panel ruled that the U.S. country of origin labels on meats (COOL) violated the organization’s rules.

The implications for this ruling are dire, especially in the context of a decades- long battle to ensure that consumers know the source of their meat. After overcoming countless obstacles, from presidential vetoes to adverse Supreme Court rulings in cases brought by food processors, it was only in 2009 that a meaningful country of origin labeling regime was finally implemented.

The legitimacy of the WTO is likely to be further undermined if the organization’s Appellate Body upholds the lower panel ruling. Such an outcome would provide evidence to consumer groups that the WTO allows anti-consumer forces a second (or third) bite at the apple, even when these interests do not succeed in their efforts to undermine consumer safeguards through purely domestic legal and political means.”

The Obama administration is considering expanding some of these anti-consumer rules in the first trade deal it is negotiating – the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The WTO ruling (and two others in 2011 against dolphin-safe labels on tuna and anti-smoking measures) shows that a new approach to trade agreements is needed – one that puts consumers, the environment and communities first.

                                                                    ###

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.

February 15, 2012

Tucker on ABC on WTO attack on food labels

See our own Todd Tucker on ABC News last night discussing the WTO attack on consumer labels:

 

January 20, 2012

Public Citizen Applauds Obama Administration’s Appeal of Trade Ruling Against U.S. Dolphin Protection Measures

Public Citizen commends the Obama administration for taking the necessary step of appealing today the harmful World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against U.S. consumer and dolphin protection measures.

In September 2011, a WTO panel ruled that the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling law violates WTO rules. The labels have been enormously successful in reducing dolphin deaths by tuna fishers – a major problem in the past, when tuna fleets set upon dolphins to catch tuna, since the two species associate with one another in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The label allows consumers to “vote with their dollars” for dolphin-safe methods. Mexico successfully challenged the U.S. standard after decades of refusing to transition its fishing fleet to more dolphin-safe fishing methods.

The ruling’s implications are dire, especially in the context of a decades-long battle to save dolphins. This struggle has been beset by countless trade-related obstacles: 1991 and 1994 rulings under the WTO’s predecessor organization led to the U.S. eliminating the more potent import ban of dolphin-unsafe tuna, and environmentalists fighting successfully in U.S. court to block the Clinton and Bush administrations from also watering down the voluntary labeling policy. These groups narrowly blocked this executive branch effort, which U.S. courts deemed “Orwellian” and “a compelling portrait of political meddling.” The legitimacy of the WTO is likely to be further undermined if the WTO’s Appellate Body upholds the lower panel ruling. Consumer and environmental groups will see that the WTO allows anti-environmental forces a second (or third) bite at the apple, even when such forces fail in their U.S. legal and political efforts to undermine a domestic policy to which they object.

The Obama administration is considering expanding some of these anti-consumer and environmental rules in the first trade deal it is negotiating: the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement. The WTO ruling – and two others in 2011 against country-of-origin labels on meat and a ban on sweet cigarettes used to entice teens into smoking – show that a new approach to trade policy is needed, one that puts consumers, the environment and communities first.

December 21, 2011

Pledge asks Congress to stand up for consumers’ right to know what’s on the dinner table

WTO ban editedJust when we thought that that the World Trade Organization (WTO) couldn’t do worse, it managed to wrap up 2011 with a series of dreadful decisions. The international body ruled against our country-of-origin labels on meat, dolphin-safe labels on tuna, and our ban on candy and clove flavored cigarettes. These are all US consumer policies we rely on to allow us to protect children’s health and make informed decisions. Thanks to such rulings, our government will have to either water down or eliminate these safeguards, or face trade sanctions.

It begs the question: Will this be last holiday season that you have a right to know where your food comes from, and how the environment, animals and people were impacted in its production?

We hope not. The press and Congress may be asleep at the wheel on this issue, but consumers can sound off the alarm by asking their congressional leaders to sign the Consumer Rights Pledge—a pledge to protect policies from the attacks of Big Business and a shameful WTO.

December 14, 2011

Todd Tucker Talks Food Safety with Thom Hartmann

Our own Todd Tucker stopped by the Thom Hartmann program to explain how two recent WTO rulings might undermine consumers' right to know exactly what they are eating.

Check out the full interview here:

December 02, 2011

Op-Ed: Trade rulings undermine consumer protection

Lori Wallach and Todd Tucker sound the alarm on the danger of three anti-consumer WTO rulings and the need to chart a path to a pro-consumer trade policy in an opinion piece in The Hill today:

Trade rulings undermine consumer protection

By Lori Wallach and Todd Tucker

“His name was Colin; here are his papers,” said the waitress presenting a bound prospectus to two diners who possess a limitless interest in the origin, diet and even friendship circle of the chicken they are about to order. The scene comes from Portlandia, the sketch comedy that skewers the bobo lifestyle.

Most of us aren’t quite so inquisitive about our food. But in an era of mass food-borne illness outbreaks, we do need retailers to provide basic information about our foods’ origins, and regulators to ensure the accuracy of these claims.

The country-of-origin labels we now rely on come from a 2008 law that ensures we know in which countries our meat was born, raised and slaughtered. The policy resulted from decades of consumer campaigning in response to slaughterhouses’ practices of routinely combining dozens of animals from diverse countries into the same hamburger patty, without having to even document the cattle’s origin.

Last month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the law violated the global agency’s rules. A three-person tribunal in Geneva admitted that there was no strong evidence of quantifiable damage to Mexico and Canada, which challenged the law. Yet, if U.S. officials do not appeal or the appeal fails, the U.S. must weaken or eliminate the policy, or we face indefinite trade sanctions.

Continue reading "Op-Ed: Trade rulings undermine consumer protection" »

November 23, 2011

COOL Ruling Not COOL

As we noted last week, the WTO has just issued a major ruling against U.S. country-of-origin labels (COOL) on meats. The decision confirms the direst predictions when the WTO was established, which questioned the wisdom of setting internationally binding rules against consumer protection.

The ruling and its six supporting annexes are hundreds of pages long, so going through all of them will take some time. Here are some additional items that we did not include in our longer analysis from Friday.

COOL is hearted by consumers

COOL is very popular, as the Obama team noted during the proceedings:

Numerous polls also indicate strong consumer support for mandatory country of origin labeling. Among the polls cited in various submissions received by USDA during the regulatory process are the following:

  • 92 percent of respondents in a 2007 Consumers Union poll believed that imported foods should be labeled with their country of origin
  • 88 percent of respondents in a 2007 Zogby poll indicated that they want all retail foods labeled with country of origin information
  • 95 percent of respondents in 2007 Zogby poll indicated that they have a right to country of origin information for food
  • 82 percent of respondents in a 2007 Food & Water Watch poll supported mandatory country of origin labeling
  • 82 percent of respondents in a 2004 nationwide poll conducted for the National Farmers Union supported country of origin labeling
  • 86 percent of respondents in a 2002 survey for Packer magazine supported country of origin labeling

However, the panel didn’t explicitly mention these polls. Throughout much of the proceedings, it was treated as an open question whether consumers actually wanted COOL.

Democracy is impermissibly uncertain; hortatory is the new mandatory

This WTO decision is the most recent of three cases with deeply troubling implications for consumers. In September, the WTO also ruled against U.S. efforts to reduce teenage smoking and dolphin mortalities. In the dolphin case, the purely voluntary dolphin-safe labeling scheme was deemed “mandatory,” despite the fact that tuna not having the label was and is sold in the U.S. After that ruling, we joked that “voluntary is the new mandatory.”

But this COOL ruling takes this joke to sad new levels, so that “hortatory is the new mandatory.”

Here’s why.

Continue reading "COOL Ruling Not COOL" »

November 10, 2011

Sherrod Brown Tosses the Panama FTA

Well, not quite. But, man, that FTA text does look pretty heavy, and like it could put a hurtin' on some of the senators in the room that are against fair trade.

But here's a floor speech from fair trade champion Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on the night the Senate voted on the Panama, Korea and Colombia trade deals. It's about 30 minutes, and a very eloquent description of why these trade deals are no longer primarily about "trade," but about how we regulate our domestic economy. Brown's TRADE Act would go a long way to getting "trade" policy right.

September 15, 2011

Flipper gets axed by the WTO

Today, U.S. efforts to reduce dolphin deaths by corporate tuna fishers through dolphin-safe labels on tuna were found to violate the WTO. This follows last week's ruling that U.S. efforts to reduce teen smoking violated the trade organization's rules. These smackdowns of major consumer regulations will be followed by a third in the near future, when the WTO is expected to rule against country of origin labeling for beef.

What this ruling means for consumers and dolphins

When the WTO rules against a country's policy, that country Dolphin-safe-logo2 has to change the law to comply, or risk trade sanctions.

The U.S. will have to get rid of the dolphin-safe labels, or water down the policy to Mexico's satisfaction. Mexico's long-standing position (reiterated in this case) is that it should get to receive a dolphin-safe label, even though tuna corporations there use methods to capture tuna that are dangerous for dolphins.

The U.S. currently defines "dolphin-safe" as tuna not caught using dangerous purse-seine nets anywhere in the world. For tuna caught in the Eastern Pacific, a unique region where dolphins and tuna swim together, additional steps are required to earn the label.

Shipping fleets of the U.S. and many developing countries (like Ecuador) operating in the Eastern Pacific have been able to meet these higher standards, thereby giving greater assurance to consumers that their tuna purchases are not harming dolphins.

In contrast, much of the Mexican fleet has chosen not to take such steps. Mexico has advocated use of a distinct standard that even the WTO acknowledges is weaker than the U.S. standard. The WTO ruling wrote of that distinct standard:

... taken alone, it fails to address unobserved adverse effects derived from repeated chasing, encircling and deploying purse seine nets on dolphins, such as separation of mothers and their dependent calves, killing of lactating females resulting in higher indirect mortality of dependent calves and reduced reproductive success due to acute stress caused by the use of helicopters and speedboats during the chase. 7.739 We also note that, to the extent that the AIDCP standard addresses setting on dolphins and not other fishing techniques that may also result in adverse effects on dolphins, it would also not provide an effective or appropriate means of fulfilling the US objectives in this respect.

Nonetheless, the WTO ruled against the U.S. standard. (We explore more of the details of the ruling below.)

Initial reports indicate that the Obama administration will appeal the ruling, although the track record of successful appeals is very limited and the WTO rules against challenged policies 90 percent of the time.

The broader worry is that this ruling leaves the door wide open to attacks on similar environmental and consumer policies - not only in the U.S., but all WTO member countries.

What this ruling means for trade policy

All three of these cases have something in common: none of them related to efforts by the U.S. to intentionally discriminate against foreign goods, nor to protect our own producers. Indeed, in the beef and dolphin cases, no discrimination could even be proved. (In the smoking case, a finding of "discrimination" was established in a biased analysis we detail here.) This alone would suggest that a trade organization has no business passing judgment on such policies.

But we are in a new era of trade policy, where even non-discriminatory, reasonable, even-handed, popular policies (some with virtually no impact on international trade) can be ruled against.

What's more, all three consumer policies could be considered very "free market"-oriented. Rather than the big old government telling Americans what they can and can't consume, the dolphin and beef policies simply require honesty in labeling, so that the consumer can decide on their own free will what to consume, and let the market works its magic.

We've long known that more interventionist government policies (like import bans) can run afoul of trade rules. Indeed, the two adverse rulings at the WTO's predecessor organization in the early 1990s against the U.S. ban on dolphin-unsafe tuna led to the eventual removal of that effective and popular policy tool. Now, with today's ruling, we learn that even regulation by more "free market" means is on the WTO chopping block.

This is going to make it harder for the Obama administration to sell similar anti-consumer trade initiatives like the trade deals with Korea, Panama and Colombia to free-marketeers and environmentalists across the political spectrum.

The long saga of protecting dolphins

After passage of various dolphin protection laws in the 1980s, the U.S. fishing industry abandoned the cruel and environmentally devastating practice of surrounding dolphins with mile-long purse seine nets to trap the schools of tuna fish swimming under the hunting mammals.  The practice had led to the death of millions of dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, where dolphins accompany schools of tuna.  The U.S. laws forbid the sale of tuna caught with purse seine nets.

In 1991, a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) tribunal ruled that this ban violated GATT rules forbidding discrimination. With the debate over NAFTA’s passage raging, Mexico decided not to impose trade sanctions when the United States maintained the laws. The U.S. prohibition was again successfully challenged under GATT by the European Union in 1994.

After NAFTA’s passage, the Clinton administration launched an intense effort to change the U.S. law to bring it into compliance with the initial ruling, while Mexico threatened a new WTO case to enforce the old ruling. After a lengthy battle with Congress, the Clinton administration managed to pass a new policy that removed the ban on U.S. sales of tuna caught with purse seine nets.

However, an attempt by the Clinton and Bush II administrations to weaken the related labeling law defining what could be labeled “dolphin safe” was reversed after a series of U.S. court cases.

Continue reading "Flipper gets axed by the WTO" »

WTO Rules Against Dolphin-Safe Tuna Labels

Round Three of the GATT-WTO Tuna-Dolphin Case: GATTzilla Kills Flipper Again

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The World Trade Organization (WTO) has ruled against the popular U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labeling in a case brought by Mexico, according to a panel report released today. The WTO has struggled to regain legitimacy following the highly visible 1999 Seattle protests that derailed plans to expand the organization’s remit – plans that have been sidelined ever since. Today’s ruling will intensify public opposition to the WTO, said Public Citizen. This is the third time the WTO and its predecessor General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade have ruled against America’s dolphin protection policies.

“It makes very real the threats these overreaching ‘trade’ pacts pose. The first round of this case in 1991 became known to environmental activists as ‘GATTzilla Kills Flipper’ and ignited U.S. public opposition to what would become the WTO,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Until that first ruling, and then a second one several years later, all we could do was point out worrisome negotiating text that we thought could undermine vital domestic environmental and other public interest policies – and then, suddenly, we had the proverbial smoking dolphin.

“In this case, a WTO tribunal is telling American consumers that having the product labels that we rely on to make sure that our shopping and dining choices do not result in dolphins being killed is a WTO violation. These are labels that apply to domestic and foreign tuna alike, that we pushed our Congress to pass,” said Wallach. “Fury about a foreign tribunal ruling against a popular U.S. consumer labeling law on a common food product, which has been explicitly and repeatedly approved by our courts, is among the few things likely to unite Americans across the political spectrum.”

Added Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, “Dolphin-safe tuna labels are strictly voluntary; Mexico can sell tuna in the U.S. market with or without the label. ‘Voluntary’ is the new ‘mandatory,’ according to this WTO ruling. It tells consumers that even voluntary labels, and the subjective consumer preferences they may cultivate, are ripe for WTO attack.”

This ruling comes on the heels of two other WTO attacks on consumer protection and information policies. Last week, the WTO ruled against U.S. measures to reduce teenage smoking, while a recently leaked ruling concluded that country-of-origin labeling for beef is a WTO violation. All three of these consumer policies are very popular with Congress and the public. These adverse WTO rulings are likely to make it more difficult for the Obama administration to gain approval for three trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama that contain similar anti-consumer provisions, Wallach said.

September 09, 2011

What Big Bird Could Teach the WTO

When I was a kid, a particular Big Bird sketch on Sesame Street made a strong impression on me: "One of these things is not like the other":

It turns out that Big Bird could teach the WTO a thing or two.

As we wrote earlier this week, and have been discussing over at the IELP blog, the WTO ruled against a rare public health victory: namely, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 (FSPTCA).

This legislation included a number of provisions, but one that attracted a lot of attention was its ban on flavored cigarettes that often serve as starter cigarettes for teenagers because of their sweet taste. The ban included candy, cola and clove flavored cigarettes, but did not include menthol flavored cigarettes in its initial ban.

You or I can disagree with the reasoning, but there was a reason for that particular design: while some kids smoke menthols, so do large numbers of adults, specifically in the African American adult community. As the Obama administration documented in its submissions in the case (quoted at length below in language that would make University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein and the Freakonomics crowd blush), immediately withdrawing menthol from the market would increase hospital visits, and overnight create a massive black market for the cigarettes.

(And not that the administration argued this in its legal case, but can you imagine the political blowback of banning a product (menthol cigarettes) that is predominantly smoked by blacks, that will increase crime and smuggling in predominantly African American neighborhoods (many of which are already struggling), while leaving untouched regular tobacco products that are more often smoked by whites, whose neighborhoods are often less crime-ridden? This would be a pretty harsh blow to race relations in the U.S., and undermine support for public health regulation period.)

By my read, the architects of the FSPTCA had some pretty sound logic for their incremental approach, which contemplated restrictions on menthol in the future, after the efficacy of the teenage-targeted measures could be tested.

Returning to the clip above, as Big Bird shows us, one of the bowls of birdseed is substantially larger than the other three. The WTO panel did not study up on their Sesame Street when ruling against the FSPTCA. In the ruling, the panel decided that menthol and clove were "like products," and that (because Indonesia exported the latter to the U.S.) a ban on the latter was "discriminatory" within the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

While menthol and clove are both "flavored cigarettes," so are cola- and candy-flavored cigarettes. The U.S. argued, plausibly in my mind and to paraphrase Big Bird, that "one of these things is not like the other." Specifically, menthol. Why? Significant numbers of adults smoke them, particularly in the African American adult community. For that reason, it poses significant adverse effect risks that the others did not.

Cloves and candy flavored cigarettes, however, are not only flavored, but they are trainer cigarettes that appeal to teenagers in significant numbers, but not to adults in significant numbers.

Continue reading "What Big Bird Could Teach the WTO" »

September 06, 2011

U.S. measures to reduce teenage smoking deemed WTO violation

U.S. measures to reduce teenage smoking violate World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, according to a panel ruling released late last week. Indonesia successfully argued that the U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) of 2009 violated WTO rules. The ruling opens the door to more teenage tobacco addiction, while further imperiling the legitimacy of a WTO that rules against environmental, health and other national policies 90 percent of the time.

The FSPTCA took a series of unprecedented and bold measures to combat teenage smoking, including Warning the banning of many forms of flavored cigarettes. There is substantial evidence that tobacco companies produce and market these cigarettes as "starter" or "trainer" cigarettes in order to hook teenagers into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

However, as the U.S. noted in its defense in the WTO case, the U.S. did not ban all types of cigarettes. In particular, regular tobacco and menthol cigarettes were excluded from the ban. The justification for these exclusions was that, unlike candy flavored or clove cigarettes, large numbers of adults are also hooked on regular and menthol cigarettes. To abruptly pull these products out of the market could cause a strain on the U.S. healthcare system (as lifetime addicts would instantly seek medical treatment for wrenching withdrawal symptoms) and might lead to a rise in illicit black market sales and associated crime. Nonetheless, various studies were ordered on the feasibility of banning menthol cigarettes in the future.

The FSPTCA banned candy and clove cigarettes regardless of where they were produced or who produced them. But Indonesia successfully argued that, since its exporters are the primary providers of clove cigarettes to the U.S. market, the FSPTCA constituted de facto discrimination, in violation of WTO rules under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). The WTO panel accepted this argument, despite the fact that the FSPTCA was totally non-discriminatory and many U.S. cigarette makers (such as those that make cola-flavored cigarettes) were also blocked from making these harmful products.

This severe blow to consumer protection comes on the heels of two other WTO rulings against America's dolphin-safe tuna and beef country-of-origin labels, and are likely to put a significant damper on the Obama administration's efforts to pass trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that contain similar anti-consumer rules.

More on the details of the case after the jump.

Continue reading "U.S. measures to reduce teenage smoking deemed WTO violation" »

May 20, 2011

U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling rule deemed a WTO violation

One of the environmental movement's greatest achievements has been the passage of legislation that protects dolphins from being slaughtered.

Now, U.S. dolphin protection rules have gotten slammed yet again by the WTO. GATT-zilla versus Flipper Take One Zillion: flipper goes down to defeat one more time.

We'll take you through some of the history of this battle. Worryingly, the WTO found that even purely voluntary labeling convention like the U.S. "do Dolphin-safe-logo2 lphin safe" labels could be deemed mandatory (and thus give rise to a WTO violation) if they impeded non-labeled tuna's "marketing opportunities in the United States." In other words, even private consumer preferences for dolphin-safe tuna can lead to a WTO violation. This could cast a real chill on voluntary labeling practices, which a lot of supporters of free trade are in favor of.

Moreover, the Obama administration did not appear to even use all possible defenses to fight against this attack.

As Inside U.S. Trade reported today,

In a confidential interim report circulated to the United States and Mexico earlier this month, a World Trade Organization panel found that U.S. labeling requirements that preclude many Mexican tuna exports from receiving a "dolphin safe" label in the United States violate international trade rules, according to informed sources.

The interim panel report found that the U.S. requirements violate Article 2.2 of the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). That article forbids WTO members from implementing "technical regulations" that are "more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfill a legitimate objective."

The case is likely to go to the Appellate Body of the WTO. But, assuming the initial WTO panel was correctly applying the WTO's anti-environmental, pro-corporate trade rules, the U.S. will have to (again) water down its dolphin protection policies or face trade sanctions.

This case has a long and sordid history, as we documented all the way back in 2000:

Continue reading "U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling rule deemed a WTO violation" »

April 08, 2011

HI State Rep Takumi Says No More NAFTAs!

Check out this op-ed written by Hawaii State Rep. Roy Takumi (D-Pearl City, Palisades) in theTakumi Honolulu Star Advertiser today. Takumi, who has served in the Hawaii State Legislature for over 19 years, is leery of more NAFTA-style agreements.

I began serving in the state House 19 years ago, shortly before NAFTA was implemented. Since NAFTA and a batch of NAFTA-style deals with other countries, we've suffered an exploding trade deficit, the loss of more than five million manufacturing jobs, and stagnation of real median wages for American workers  at 1970s levels. Meanwhile, we have been flooded with unsafe imported food and goods, and foreign investors have used NAFTA to challenge important state environmental laws before foreign tribunals.

Further, Takumi takes on some of the rosy promises Korea FTA supporters are making to Hawaii's agricultural producers.

The reality is that even with zero Korean tariffs, most of Hawaii's agricultural products cannot come close to the low prices for which these products are sold to Korea by others. For example, Indian banana and papaya farmers sell their crop at one-fourth to one-third the price local farmers require. Peruvian farmers sell guava at $173 per metric ton; our price is $346. Farmers in Thailand, the largest pineapple producer, sell their pineapples at $120 per metric ton compared to $458 locally. How do we compete in this market?

Takumi, who has led efforts to improve trade agreements for several years - including sponsoring legislation that was enacted in 2007 to give the Hawaii legislature a formal role in determining some of Hawaii's commitments to trade agreements - is among many state officials who are critical of the undemocratic NAFTA-style model.

Just a few weeks ago, New Jersey State Senator Shirley Turner (D-Trenton) introduced a resolution supporting a New Jersey Constitutional amendment requiring that the New Jersey legislature give approval before New Jersey may be committed to certain aspects of international trade agreements. This resolution comes on the heels legislation passed by wide margins in the New Jersey legislature last session which was vetoed by the outgoing governor, John Corzine. If Turner's resolution passes, the proposed amendment will go to the ballot this fall.

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