Sat, Feb 18, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Taking care with the public’s health

By Chen Man-li 陳曼麗

After a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman Raymond Burghardt, the Council of Agriculture may open up the door and set up a “one country, two systems” framework to allow large amounts of US beef containing the lean meat-enhancing agent ractopamine to enter the country. The health of Taiwanese seems to have become a secondary issue in political talks.

Ractopamine will endanger public health — especially pregnant women, children, those with heart problems and the weak — and in the long run, make even healthy people unhealthy. This will without a doubt increase health insurance expenses and put a greater burden on the National Health Insurance program.

In 2007, Taiwan lifted the ban on ractopamine, but after strong protests from hog farmers, the council and the Department of Health promised that it would continue to ban the use of the chemical, with the prohibition applying to all livestock from within and without Taiwan. After more than four years, the government is once again thinking about relaxing restrictions. It is doing this not in the interests of Taiwanese farmers, nor for the health and safety of the public — but to please Washington. This begs the question what role Taiwanese sovereignty plays in this whole matter.

The government appears to have already made up its mind to deregulate the market, although it claims that it has no preconceived ideas about the matter and that nothing has been decided in the hope of dragging things out and avoiding public complaints. A month later, it will likely turn around, make a huge policy change, and then pretend nothing ever happened.

While everyone is responsible for their own health, it seems that Taiwanese consumer rights are being sacrificed because of the government’s lack of responsibility.

Taiwanese normally purchase food at traditional markets and supermarkets. In such places, labeling on raw meat is almost nonexistent. For those who purchase smaller cuts of meat, all they can do is place their faith in the safety of the government’s management system. If Taiwan were to adopt two separate systems — one for imported meat and one for local meat — how will consumers be able to tell which meat was produced here and which was sourced overseas? It will be even harder for them to tell if meat has been further processed.

Many Taiwanese eat most of their meals outside home — in hotels, buffets, school lunches and street stalls — and dangerous ractopamine-laced beef can be found anywhere. Who is in charge of monitoring these products?

There have been reports that tests based on the control and certification system implemented in 2009 to bar the entry of harmful meat have identified imported beef sold at supermarkets that tested positive for ractopamine. This shows just how lax management is.

There are more than 20 types of ractopamine. Early on, some of these were used to treat people with asthma, who lost weight and gained muscle as a result. Enterprising businesspeople then started to market ractopamine for use in animal husbandry, including cattle, pigs and turkeys. It was found that ractopamine-fed domesticated animals lose fat and gain in lean meat content, thus selling better on the market.

The maximum daily intake of ractopamine for a healthy person is 60 micrograms. The health department proposed a maximum allowable ractopamine residue level of 90 parts per billion, and that on average each person would only consume 13.5 micrograms per day. However, given the huge amount of meat that Taiwanese — especially the younger generation — consume, how can one manage or limit its daily intake?

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