Tony Hu says that “Taiwanese consumers are smart” (Letters, March 7, page 8). This may indeed be the case, but whether they in fact are smart when they buy is open to question, as is the assumption of a “rational agent” buying only on the basis of informed choices in free-market economics more generally.
Research on consumers in affluent consumer societies such as Taiwan suggests that people do not buy “smart,” or purely rationally, all of the time, but also for the competing reasons of economy (false or otherwise), convenience, fashion, novelty and status. This is so even at the expense of long-term health: hence, for example, widespread (type 2) diabetes, heart and obesity problems, especially in “developed” countries, where cheap and convenient food is prevalent.
In Taiwan, so-called “designer labels” and electronic gadgets are popular not purely for “smart,” rational reasons. And whatever else explains the popularity in Taiwan and worldwide of MacDonald’s, for example, it’s unlikely to be found solely in terms of the “smart,” rational reasons of healthy, nutritious food.
The issue for many countries regarding the use of lean meat additives, as with growth hormones and antibiotics administered to prevent rather than treat farm animals is a principle of animal welfare, rather than consumer choice.
The 27 EU countries collectively believe — rightly or wrongly — that to essentially medicate healthy animals is in principle a bad thing: The point then is not so much to show (as the US Food and Drug Administration does) that there are no ill-effects on consumers, but rather that it is beneficial or necessary for human health. Mostly for this reason, the EU has had a more than 20-year ban on virtually all US beef, in defiance of the WTO.
Underlying this topic is also the issue of protectionism — protecting local jobs and local farming cultures and practices. While protectionism is anathema to the neoliberal free-trader, it is again at heart a matter of principle, rather than objective, rational reasons that can win the argument either way. Hence, the US itself, while promoting free trade, practices protectionism in some of its agricultural sectors — cotton, for example — and in steel production.
For American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director William Stanton then to claim that “America doesn’t bully” (“AIT denies ‘bullying’ Taipei on beef imports,” March 9, page 3) either shows an acute lack of awareness of US trade negotiating tactics generally, or is simply a barefaced lie.
Either way, it is difficult to interpret his remark that the ractopamine issue could be a problem for Taiwan in signing free-trade agreements as nothing short of a threat: EU countries, for example, routinely sign free-trade agreements, despite the longstanding trade dispute with the US.
I do not understand the fear of US beef in Taiwan. The use of additives and feed is strictly governed in the US and butcher shops are all government- inspected. We eat beef in the US several times a week with no ill effects.
When in Taiwan I hear rumors about how we send you different beef, nonsense. The beef plants may ship a portion of their labor overseas, but there are no special butcher shops for exclusive overseas shipments that I know of.
In Taiwan, I have seen trucks loaded with pork carcasses driving through the streets uncovered. I have walked through wet markets and seen filth that would never pass an inspection in the US. There are also open-air markets with all kinds of meat open to flies and no ice on them to keep them from spoiling in the hot sun. Taiwan’s air is so polluted I imagine a portion of that settles on the exposed meat, too.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Taiwan and we visit at least once a year. I just don’t understand some silly, unfounded rumors.
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