Before last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, most Japanese specialists would have had us believe there was no need to worry about nuclear safety. After the accident, there were still some specialists who argued that this type of event occurs only once in several hundred years, so there was no need to alter current policy.
Of course, one needs to take a scientific approach to policy formulation, whether it is on nuclear power or lean meat-enhancing additives. However, in certain cases, using scientific conclusions to support a policy to absolve oneself of political responsibility might also go against the spirit of science.
Some individuals insist there is no scientific evidence to show that food injected with the feed additive ractopamine is harmful to the human body. However, for a long time before nicotine was found to be harmful, scientists were saying there was no evidence to prove that this was the case.
So, is meat with leanness-enhancing agents harmful to humans? A more responsible way of putting it, and one that is more in keeping with the spirit of science, is that the limited amount of research conducted to date is as yet insufficient to show that ractopamine is a clear and evident risk to humans, but neither is it sufficient to dispel any suspicions that it might be.
Given the lack of conclusive scientific evidence, the decision of whether to allow US beef imports is purely a political one, and has nothing to do with scientific fact.
Politically speaking, the issue of importing US beef containing ractopamine residues is clearly related to pressure from Washington. Taiwan and the US signed an agreement in 2009 lifting the ban on US beef imports — only to have the legislature reinstate the ban a few months later in the face of public anger and the government to introduce “three management and five checkpoint” (三管五卡) measures, referring to regular inspections of meat products at processing factories, the border and in markets. Whether these measures were strictly implemented is another issue, but the US authorities were not happy with the situation and have continued to apply pressure on Taiwan to amend its food safety law.
In 2008, the South Korean government signed an agreement with the US on meat imports, a compromise necessary to pave the way for the signing of a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA). However, this proved to be unpopular, with hundreds of thousands of South Koreans holding candlelight vigils and protests. In 2009, Taiwan signed a protocol agreement with the US — elaborately titled the “Protocol of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-Related Measures for the Importation of Beef and Beef Products for Human Consumption from the Territory of the Authorities Represented by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) (台美牛肉議定書)” — which was more exacting than the 2008 US-South Korea version. If importing US beef is to be a precondition for signing an FTA with the US, Taiwan evidently has to compromise much more than South Korea did.
About 20 countries, including South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, impose a 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit on ractopamine residues on meat imports. US beef producers are hoping that Taiwan — which currently has zero tolerance for ractopamine — will adopt similar standards. They are hoping that easing this standard would allow them to sell a considerable amount of beef to Taiwan.