The government has come in for fierce criticism from both sides of the political divide since it was announced last week that restrictions on imports of US bone-in beef and offal would be lifted.
The criticism has mainly focused on the health risks posed by eating beef and beef products possibly contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
Although the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) claim to represent public concern in their vociferous protests, for the KMT caucus all of this seems to be nothing more than an excuse to bash the US, while the DPP’s machinations are obviously an attempt to highlight what it sees as the government’s latest display of ineptitude. It can also be assumed that both parties have one eye on December’s elections.
One thing that politicians don’t seem to be taking notice of, however, is the scientific evidence that suggests eating US beef poses no substantial health risk.
The ferocity of politicians would be entirely justified if it were imports of UK beef we were talking about, as the UK was where the BSE epidemic was first identified and where the vast majority of cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE, have been reported. The disease is a mainly British affair and the WHO says many of the cases reported in other countries were people likely exposed to the BSE agent while living in the UK during the height of the epidemic in the late 1980s.
Figures from the UK’s National Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit show that at the end of last month there had been 167 deaths from vCJD in the UK, with the peak (28 cases) occurring in 2000.
In the US, to date there have been just three cases of BSE (one imported) and three deaths from vCJD, but two of these three deaths were likely cases of exposure in the UK, while the other was a recent immigrant.
These figures are the kind of factual information the public should have been presented with before the ban was lifted. This would have given them the chance to make an informed choice on the matter, rather than be fed with misinformation, rumor and the mischief of politicians with ulterior motives.
American Institute in Taiwan Director William Stanton’s indelicate comparison that eating US beef is safer than riding a scooter only served to embolden opponents and allowed them to continue their campaign of baseless accusations.
The Presidential Office and government officials have repeatedly stressed that they followed the “South Korea example” regarding the strictness of controls imposed on the relaxation of US beef imports. That may be the case, but unfortunately the government also followed South Korea’s example by flunking basic public relations before the ban was lifted, allowing opportunist politicians of all hues to prey on ignorance and create fear.
The government’s amateurish handling of the whole episode means it is now putting out an endless series of spot fires in order to prevent a repeat of what happened in South Korea, instead of concentrating on more pressing matters of national interest.
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