Sat, Feb 11, 2012 - Page 8 News List

The US beef issue is a matter of principle

By Liou Pei-pai 劉培柏

If Taiwan allows imports of US beef containing residue of the leanness-enhancing agent ractopamine, numerous problems will ensue. Newly appointed Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) said that Japan has approved imports of US beef containing ractopamine and asked why Taiwan could not do the same.

Ractopamine is marketed as a pig feed additive under the brand name Paylean and its use is permitted in the US. Nevertheless, scientific data suggest that livestock products containing residues of ractopamine could be harmful to certain groups of people such as children, pregnant women and those suffering from circulatory illnesses, even if the amount of residue is within the permitted limit. That is why the EU and China have not approved the use of ractopamine and ban the sale of foods containing ractopamine residue.

Perhaps we should turn Chen’s question around and ask him why Taiwan should not continue to follow the same policy as the EU and China.

At present 26 countries allow ractopamine to be administered to pigs. It can be given to cows in Canada, the US, Mexico and Indonesia, and the US and Canada allow it to be added to turkey feed.

Ractopamine is effective in promoting muscle growth in animals. It improves the feed conversion rate, that is the amount of meat produced relative to the feed given to the animal, and reduces fat storage, thus increasing the proportion of lean meat. For this reason, some livestock farmers in Taiwan secretly feed the banned drug to their animals.

Last year government inspectors detected numerous cases of ractopamine being fed to pigs and geese in Taiwan. If the government permits imports of US beef containing ractopamine residue, what are the authorities supposed to say to the nation’s livestock farmers who want to use the drug?

If the authorities follow the example of Japan by maintaining a ban on ractopamine in domestic meat production while allowing the import of meat containing ractopamine residue, how will they answer the question: “If the US and 26 other countries allow it, why can’t Taiwan allow it too?”

Don’t experts tell us that ractopamine is not stored in an animal’s body and is quickly metabolized? Don’t they say that it is almost completely eliminated from the body in less than 20 hours? If that is so, why did the Department of Health a couple of years ago find ractopamine residue in several hundred tonnes of US beef and order it to be shipped back?

It is hard to comprehend why the US blames Taiwan for returning the beef when its own authorities had clearly failed to test it properly. Besides, there are reportedly plenty of livestock farms in the US that do not use ractopamine, so if Taiwan wants to import US beef that is free of ractopamine, why can’t the US supply it?

The US beef issue touches on political issues to do with farming, economics, trade and even diplomacy. The government may have hundreds of justifications for permitting US beef imports, but, when it is a matter of ensuring Taiwanese are not exposed to unsafe food, we really must uphold the ban — even if it means upsetting the US.

The question is, does Chen have the necessary steely determination to make such a stand, or will he instead ignore expert opinion?

The US might also demand that the new Cabinet allow imports of US beef on the bone. If they do that, the issue will become even more contentious because it then broadens to include worries about mad cow disease.

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