With resolutions 69 and 67, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO body overseeing consumers’ health and fair practices in the international food trade, finally, during its 35th session earlier this month in Rome, decided on an acceptable level of residues of the livestock feed additive ractopamine in meat. This took some by surprise and has somewhat softened the stance of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was originally opposed to allowing ractopamine-treated meat imports. Hopefully, there will now be a solution to the deadlock in the recent extraordinary legislative session on regulations for US beef imports containing the additive. Ractopamine has proved to be such a contentious issue that it is in the public’s interest for it to be resolved as soon as possible. Several observations can be made about this:
First, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) had already, as early as 2006, completed a health risk assessment on ractopamine, issuing a draft advisory on safe levels in agreement with the findings of a commission-affiliated Codex Committee on Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Foods review. Regardless, until last year’s 34th commission session, the various member states still had not reached a consensus on the maximum permissible level. The sticking point was that the decision did not come down to scientifically measurable levels, but involved trade conflicts between the US, the EU and China. The EU adopted a protectionist strategy and deliberately blocked agreement.
Second, as far as Taiwan is concerned, the US is more than just a major trading partner, because the nation relies on its support politically and for its national security. A major national priority has been to maintain US-Taiwan relations while simultaneously developing relations with China, and the US beef issue has prevented this from being achieved. This resulted in the suspension of high-level bilateral trade talks in 2007 and led US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and American Institute in Taiwan Director William Stanton to say at the beginning of this year that the passage of amendments on the US beef issue could only help the resumption of negotiations on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
Third, the WTO Doha Round has highlighted the emerging international trend toward multilateral or bilateral trade cooperation. Some of Taiwan’s main competitors have been especially busy. For example, South Korea has been particularly active over the past years, signing free-trade agreements with its major trading partners to increase competitiveness and transform its industries. Taiwan, by comparison, has been treading water and wasting precious time. While the nation has benefited from improving relations with China and signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with Beijing, Taiwan has not moved forward. Given the trends toward regional liberalization and economic integration, Taiwan cannot afford to stand by as the world moves on.
The situation is looking a little better after the commission’s decision and surely both the government and opposition can see there is no time to lose and that national interests come above individual or party interests. Of course, resuming talks on a prospective TIFA will not solve all the nation’s problems on its own, but it will certainly be a crucial step in the right direction. If Taiwan is unable to restart the talks, it can at least use this platform to start free-trade talks with the US, with the long-term goal of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.