Thu, Jul 05, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Turning beef issue into opportunity

By Peng Tso-kwei 彭作奎

The controversy over US beef imports has yet to be resolved, but the issue has to be dealt with, because Washington has made it clear that it wants Taiwan to allow imports of US beef containing traces of the leanness-enhancing agent ractopamine, and that this will be a precondition for negotiating and resuming talks on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).

The US beef issue has widespread implications. Aside from questions about food safety and health, its effects encompass economics, politics, diplomacy and Taiwan’s participation in the international community. Therefore, the issue is significant for the nation’s future prospects and development. If the battle lines over the US beef issue are extended indefinitely, it will not be a good thing for Taiwan.

Let us consider the international realities. When the US was negotiating trade agreements with Japan and South Korea, it also bundled up the issue of beef imports with the negotiations. Taking food safety considerations into account, the Japanese and South Korean governments both agreed to allow imports of US beef containing less than 10 parts per billion of ractopamine, and signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) on that basis.

However, Japan maintains a total ban on the use of ractopamine within its own borders and has strengthened various measures for protecting its citizens’ health.

Some people may insist that meat containing ractopamine is completely harmless, but consumer protection groups will definitely not agree.

As media reports have shown, the Democratic Progressive Party is not opposed to importing US beef or doing trade with the US; it is only opposed to importing beef that contains ractopamine. The government’s task then is to communicate better with the public, respecting expertise and assessing the issue according to technical data and risk management.

The government must promise that after it allows imports of beef containing ractopamine, it will set a rigorous standard for the permitted amount of ractopamine, in line with international practice.

It must include ractopamine and growth promoters in the list of substances for which meat has to be tested according to the law and ensure that imported meat is clearly labeled with its country of origin.

This way, suppliers, retailers and restaurant owners can keep consumers fully informed and consumers can refer to the labels when deciding what products to choose or reject. That would serve to protect the health of people living in Taiwan.

South Korea’s experience is that the impact of allowing US beef imports has not been as serious as was originally thought. Although local beef is three times more expensive than US beef, South Koreans still prefer to buy local beef whose safety is guaranteed by the government. Hence, high-quality South Korean beef is not threatened by US imports.

Newly slaughtered beef produced in Taiwan is fresh, sweet and tender. Imported frozen beef cannot compare with it. However, Taiwanese beef accounts for less than 10 percent of the supply, so consumers do not have much opportunity to choose it.

Agricultural policy departments will have to think long and hard about how to ensure that local beef producers can continue to develop sustainably.

Relaxing restrictions on US beef imports will cause many problems for Taiwan’s agriculture. Notably, the US beef issue is tied up with prospects for the TIFA and an FTA. Apart from beef, such agreements may also require Taiwan to lift restrictions on related imports of pork, rice and other products.

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