Tue, Feb 21, 2012 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: What’s wrong with self-protection?

The debate over the import of US beef with ractopamine residues has left one stone unturned — is it politically acceptable to protect the nation’s food supplies or must Taiwan bow to outside pressure to allow imports of questionable foodstuffs that will likely drive out better quality, but more expensive, food?

Any nation, especially one that belongs to the WTO, that tries to ban the import of a product that is tainted with some sort of chemical, hormone or plasticizer is labeled a trade protectionist. This is seen as the worst kind of pejorative term in political circles because it implies self-imposed ostracism from the international elite. However, it is simply a perversion of one of the noblest words in the English language, to “protect.”

Aren’t we brought up believing in the need to protect our families, our loved ones, our cherished ideals? Do we fault people who protect their homes, their health and their livelihood?

In this case, it seems that many in the political establishment find fault with protecting one’s health.

Importing beef from the US is a bad idea if there is a healthier alternative. The US meat industry leaves many things to be desired. Cows are slaughtered too fast, producing spills of feces on the meat; the raising of animals is accelerated by a cocktail of hormones and drugs and they are even turned into cannibals against their will, all to fatten them up as quickly as possible.

However, because of the way its cattle are raised, the US produces beef cheaper than other countries, giving it a competitive edge. Given a level playing field, which would result if Taiwan allowed imports of US beef containing ractopamine residues, US beef would eventually drive out its competitors.

However, this is not really fair competition. A similar case is US imports of steel from China. In China, officials suppress wages, ban unions and crack down on protests, while forcing workers to endure long, hard hours working in hot and dirty conditions. On top of this, Beijing has been accused of manipulating its currency to keep it low compared with the US dollar, as well as providing subsidies for the steel sector. All these, taken together, give a huge competitive advantage to Chinese steel in the international market.

If the US were to adopt the same approach for steel imports that it has been advocating for other countries’ imports of its beef, it would allow imports of Chinese steel without a problem, and low-priced Chinese steel would eventually drive out US steel. However, Washington doesn’t do that. It protects its industry with tariffs, anti-dumping measures and subsidies of its own. It seems that when it comes to its own industries, the US is protectionist, but when the situation involves trade of US goods abroad, Washington is all for the open door.

The issue of US beef imports not only affects the livelihood of cattle farmers — admittedly not a large number of people — but also the health of anybody who eats beef. For the most part, people eat what looks good, tastes good and is cheap. US beef fits all these criteria. However, if people knew what weird drugs were inside US beef, they would think twice about eating it. Alas, not all people read newspapers and many don’t heed warnings — once US beef is the only choice, it will be too late to protect Taiwan’s health.

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