Mon, Jun 18, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Beefing up consumer protection is critical

By Lu Hsin-chang 盧信昌

Even though the recent legislative session ended without a vote on whether to amend standards regulating the level of the leanness-inducing feedstock additive ractopamine in beef, there are several reasons that such a measure is still being considered, including US-Taiwan relations and future trade prospects.

At the time of writing the vote had not taken place, but tensions between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and opposition parties was palpable and the sense of public unease growing. I feel that beef containing ractopamine needs to be clearly labeled.

Department of Health (DOH) Minister Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) submitted a statement calling for clearer labeling in the interest of confidence in food safety, saying he wanted checks done in markets and restaurants around the country to make sure meat products are in line with regulations on plasticizer agents.

The department also wants to regulate label dimensions, stipulating that labels must be clear and easy to read, rather than a single line of small text and must also include meat sold in bulk.

In addition, the department also wants labeling to include not just where the food was processed, but where it was originally produced.

How exactly is the government going to legislate to ensure the food is adequately labeled? What kind of information needs to be present so that consumers can exercise their right of choice, allowing us to protect the health of our citizens?

First, US beef is not harmful and neither are leanness-inducing agents essential food additives. The US operates a cattle grazing system and additional livestock processing increases costs, so most farmers choose not to use do so unless necessary. Sometimes the meat is transported over long distances and the further it travels, the more expensive it becomes, so there is a point at which the case for injecting ractopamine becomes more persuasive.

Research shows that 16 percent the US’ population lives below the poverty line. At 30 parts per billion, the maximum allowable residual limit for ractopamine set by the US Food and Drug Administration is the highest of any country in the West. This level was arrived at not only through balancing economic factors, but also after considering the need to provide low price meat products for those in the US.

Japan imports more than five times the amount of beef from Australia than it does from the US. The fact that Japan and South Korea allow US beef imports with ractopamine residue is partly due to the level of demand for US beef from US military bases in those countries.

Finally, studies suggest that the average price per kilo of US beef imported into Taiwan was, at around US$6, the highest unit price in Asia, demonstrating Taiwanese purchasing power and picky consumers.

Given the above points, I urge the legislature to ensure labeling on beef should state the level of ractopamine residue batch by batch. At least it should indicate where the meat originated.

The point is to give consumers the data they need to make an informed choice. This would also incentivize traders to source high quality US beef products.

The majority of US ranches do not inject their livestock with ractopamine and Taiwan ranks first in Asia in terms of the unit price paid for US beef and per capita consumption.

This puts our merchants in a very good negotiating position and — with good labeling — would allay public concern about food safety and help President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to fulfill his commitment to protect the health of Taiwanese.

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