Tue, May 02, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Why all the fuss about US beef?

It's hard to see what all the fuss is about on the recent discovery of a few bone fragments in cases of US beef. After all, the US has only had two confirmed cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease as it is more commonly known. And as both of these cases were detected and taken care of very quickly, there was little chance of any infected meat getting into the human food chain in the US, let alone Taiwan. Nevertheless, the Taiwanese government has been extremely cautious and imposed a total import ban on two previous occasions, actions that must be commended.

This time around, the Consumers' Foundation was correct in highlighting the discovery, as it is a matter for public concern. The government, however, decided not to impose a full ban, instead opting to disallow the supplier concerned and asking the US government to step up management regulations in slaughterhouses. The Consumers' Foundation called for a total ban, saying that in its eagerness to please the US the government was taking a risk with people's health. The foundation is partly right, but it must also be aware that the US meat lobby is an extremely powerful organization that can apply pressure on US politicians and have any subsequent ban quickly lifted.

Still, anyone who has read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation would not be surprised by these events. They would know that most slaughterhouses in the US are staffed by overworked and underpaid immigrants who work around the clock just to make ends meet -- workers who lead a similar existence to foreign laborers in Taiwan. A few bone fragments getting into a meat shipment would be the least of their worries.

Readers of the book would also know that giant agribusiness companies have been instrumental in dictating how meat is raised, slaughtered and processed in modern times. From mechanically recovered meat (a process that uses high-pressure water jets to strip meat from animal carcasses) to feeding calves protein mixes made from dead cattle -- the very practice scientists believe was responsible for causing BSE in the first place -- these giant conglomerates have been responsible for the destruction of traditional farming methods and communities.

Indeed, if many of today's consumers knew what kinds of things had happened to their steak before it ended up on their plate, there would probably be a lot more vegetarians among us.

Taiwanese concerned about the threat of mad cow disease should look to the UK for reassurance. After all, it was there that BSE first came to light in 1986, and thanks to a mixture of government mismanagement and institutional foot dragging it soon developed into an epidemic. Around 180,000 infected cattle were eventually slaughtered and infected meat entered the human food chain, resulting in around 150 human deaths from variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE, by the end of 2004. Even today, scientists remain in the dark about the length of the disease's incubation period and whether cases in the UK have peaked or not.

Even one Taiwanese death is too high a price to pay, but when compared with the experience of the UK it appears that Taiwanese have little to worry about where BSE is concerned. Still, all the fuss makes one wonder: Why doesn't Taiwan demand the same standards when it comes to domestic food production?

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