Wed, Feb 15, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Ma and the politics of ractopamine

By Lee Ying-yuan 李應元

In the run-up to the Jan. 14 presidential and legislative elections, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration did its best to keep clear of controversial policies, for fear that they could have a negative influence on Ma and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the poll results. However, these issues are like a pressure cooker that has kept getting hotter all the time and now that the elections are over, they are bound to explode and come to the fore. The question of lean meat-enhancing agents and US beef is one of these political hot potatoes.

About 20 kinds of drug are classed as lean meat-enhancing agents. One of these is ractopamine, which in Taiwan is generally known by the brand name Paylean, under which it is sold as a feed additive for pigs. Ractopamine is the only lean meat-enhancing agent whose use is permitted by US authorities, because is it is generally considered to be less risky than other similar drugs.

The function of these chemicals is to reduce the amount of animal feed required and to increase the proportion of lean meat in the slaughtered animal. It is estimated that US livestock farmers make an extra US$10 for each pig they produce when they add Paylean to their feed, but the downside is that ractopamine may pose health risks to human beings, such as irregular heartbeat and heart attacks.

The EU, China and Japan do not permit the use of ractopamine or the sale of meat that tests positive for the drug. Apart from health concerns, these bans might also be a kind of trade barrier set up to protect pig farmers in those countries. Pig farmers’ associations in Taiwan are also opposed to permitting ractopamine in meat, for fear that allowing it would open the door to large-scale imports of US pork.

In 2007, the Department of Health (DOH) proposed a permitted level of ractopamine residue based on the standards set by Japan and the Joint FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), but this standard was never implemented because of controversy surrounding the issue. Ma has been in office since 2008, but in all this time Taiwan has not carried out its own assessment of the drug’s possible health risks and the doubts that were raised five years ago remain unresolved.

However, now the government seems intent on lifting the ban on ractopamine. We in the Democratic Progressive Party cannot help but ask whether the government thinks it has to do this to reward the US for comments favorable to Ma that some serving and former US officials made in the run-up to last month’s elections.

It should be noted that a study carried out by a group of professors at Iowa State University found that seven out of a group of nine greyhounds suffered serious damage to their hearts after having ractopamine added to their food. The results of the experiment were published in the journal Veterinary Pathology on Oct. 12 last year. If large dogs suffer such serious effects from ingesting the drug, can it really be harmless to humans?

Another point is that ractopamine tends to accumulate in animals’ hearts. People in other countries do not eat animal organs very much, so those countries have set relatively high permitted amounts for ractopamine residue. Taiwanese, on the other hand, are in the habit of eating a lot of animal organs, so the risk would be greater if the same high limits were accepted in this country.

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