Mon, Apr 02, 2012 - Page 8 News List

US beef is the thin end of the wedge

By Du Yu 杜宇

To expedite the relaxation of the ban on US beef imports containing ractopamine residues, the government has recently spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money on advertising that should have been paid for by the companies selling the meat. Officials also ran around trying to sell the idea.

The biggest problem with this is that neither President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) nor the government officials involved seem to be on the public’s side. They seem reluctant to come clean or to communicate in any meaningful way. Instead, they just try to underplay the risks and construct fantastical ideas that ractopamine is not harmful. All they are doing is digging themselves deeper into a hole at the expense of the public’s trust in the government.

Many countries have banned imports of meat with ractopamine residues for the reason that the drug has no medicinal function. These countries are not willing to allow the inclusion of a substance that could potentially constitute a public health hazard if that additive is present for the sole purpose of reducing production costs and maximizing profits. The EU also bans it on animal welfare grounds, as ractopamine is thought to have various side effects, such as causing lameness and increased fatality.

Just as nobody wants to eat food that could harm them, it is repugnant to force animals to absorb toxins — such as ractopamine, antibiotics or hormones — that might be detrimental to their health.

Faced with growing public anger and pressure, the government, officials and certain academics have tried to play the economic intimidation card, repeatedly pointing out that the US beef import issue extends beyond the US-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) — it also impacts a potential US-Taiwan free-trade agreement (FTA) and Taiwan’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and therefore Taiwan’s global position.

If that is the case, then any country could just get Taiwan to do whatever it wanted, claiming that a refusal to lift a certain ban would be damaging to bilateral trade negotiations. Any other industries in Taiwan supportive of the government’s move to relax the ban on imports of beef with ractopamine residues should bear in mind that they might be the next to be sacrificed in the interests of the next set of trade negotiations.

If the government does not do its homework when preparing for the TIFA talks with the US, it is going to find it virtually impossible to produce concrete facts and figures to convince the public that accepting US beef imports was worth it, or that sufficient efforts had been made to put efficient damage limitation or compensation measures in place.

Developed agricultural nations, and especially the US, protect their farming industries far beyond the provision of substantial subsidies. Economies of scale mean that many of these agricultural products can be produced at low cost, making them very competitive in foreign markets. In international trade negotiations these advanced nations force other countries to open up their markets to these products, on the pretext of trade liberalization.

Now Taiwanese farmers are feeling they have their backs against the wall. The government should have restructured the industry some time ago in preparation for what it has known for some time, that agriculture in this country is to be seriously and unavoidably hit by the outcome of trade negotiations — including the TPP, the TIFA and FTAs — it will have with other countries.

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