Tue, Jun 12, 2012 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Confusion over ‘Grade-A lean beef’

Beef has been in the headlines so often lately that an outsider could not be blamed for thinking Taiwan did not have more pressing issues to debate, such as the possibility of armed conflict with China or the possible dissolution of the eurozone sending economic shockwaves across the world.

With newspapers, TV stations, magazines and radio programs forever going on about beef-this and beef-that, it would seem that the facts on the issue would have by now been made clear and the public well informed about the players and stakes involved in the controversy.

Not so. There seems to have been a concerted effort made on both sides of the debate to twist the facts in a bid to obfuscate what is really at stake.

First, the beef issue is often portrayed as a debate about whether to maintain a ban on US beef. However, there is no ban on US beef, and suggesting that there is one is either a fallacy or a deliberate distortion of the facts. Looking at the shelves of any Wellcome supermarket or Costco makes it evident that there is no such ban. Taiwan did ban US beef products in 2003 after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as mad cow disease, was discovered in the US, but the ban was briefly lifted in 2005 under the administration of then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), before imports were finally resumed with some restrictions in 2006.

The next major fallacy that is often repeated is an implication that the ban on beef containing residue of the leanness-enhancing feed additive ractopamine just applies to the US. If this were true, then imports of Canadian and Australian beef containing ractopamine residue would be allowed. However, Canadian beef with ractopamine is blocked from entering Taiwan, just like similarly tainted Australian beef. The law banning imports of all ractopamine-tainted meats was enacted in 2001 in concurrence with a majority of the world’s nations, long before the dispute about US beef started. Banning tainted beef from only one country would show overt political bias and would be easily challenged in the WTO.

Finally, this is not an issue over beef per se, but meat in general. Taiwan has a de facto ban on all meats containing ractopamine residue, not just beef. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) amendment to restrictions on meat imports to be voted on in the legislature today would essentially lift this ban, although KMT legislators have promised to protect domestic pork producers. However, the KMT in general, and with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) at the helm in particular, has proven ineffective at protecting anyone in Taiwan under any circumstances. So how long restrictions on ractopamine-tainted pork imports would last after the ban is lifted is anyone’s guess.

The beef issue has been described as a trade dispute between Taiwan and the US, but it only became one through the Ma administration’s mishandling of the issue. Ma should not have promised the US more than he could deliver when he eased restrictions on bone-in beef imports in 2009. Shortly after Ma promised an open market to the US, a major portion of those imports were blocked because of the ractopamine restrictions, something Ma did not anticipate. As a result, Washington felt cheated and froze further trade talks with Taipei.

More than anything, Ma’s rush to please caused this problem; that and his inability to see the political and economic need to protect Taiwanese pork producers. Taiwan is a nation of pigs, not cows . Dropping the ban on ractopamine-tainted imports would ultimately impact pork producers, who would either be forced to use ractopamine themselves or go bankrupt in the face of cheaper pork imports.

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