The cross-strait service trade agreement was signed in June last year, but remains mired in controversy and has yet to be approved by the legislature, while negotiations about a trade in goods agreement are ongoing. Nevertheless, media reports say that, following consultations between a certain company and Chinese government agencies such as the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the Taiwan Affairs Office, lettuce from Taiwan will now be given quick clearance through Chinese customs. The reports described how Taiwanese officials looked on as two container loads of lettuce were shipped directly to China.
The government said a few days ago that when the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone is eventually linked with Taiwan’s planned free economic pilot zones, it was considering allowing private Chinese firms nominated by the AQSIQ to set up facilities for farm-product inspection in the Taiwanese zones, so that there would be no need for them to be inspected again when passing through Chinese customs. This proposal has raised concerns about whether it is meant to pave the way for Chinese businesses to come to Taiwan and invest in agricultural logistics operations.
What concerns people is that the authorities on either side of the Taiwan Strait have varying regulations about what agricultural inputs are allowed and what test methods and residue levels are permitted, and they also face different situations regarding diseases and pests.
Before the two governments reached full agreement about recognizing each other’s certifications, they must take into account the need to guarantee the public’s food safety and guard against alien pathogens. Bearing this in mind, further negations will be needed to cover express customs clearance for fresh farm produce.
However, a private company appears to have been given the green light to export its products, setting aside major issues to do with food safety on both sides of the Taiwan Strait rather than following officially agreed upon channels.
Is this incident a special case, or will it apply across the board? The government departments concerned must offer a clear account, so that other firms in the same line of business can also receive express clearance when they export Taiwanese agricultural products to China, rather than bigger corporations being given a special privilege.
Even more important to consider is that the WTO requires equal treatment for citizens of different countries. Based on this principle, the question arises of whether Chinese farm products will be given express access to Taiwan through the same channel and procedures. Will Taiwan act reciprocally by accepting safety inspection certificates and labels issued by Chinese authorities?
There is good cause to worry, because Chinese farmers use a lot of agricultural chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, while inspections and quarantine procedures are unevenly applied in different parts of China.
Such uneven approaches also apply to the way safety certificates are issued by Chinese authorities. Some issue licenses at the drop of a hat, and the Chinese market is full of products carrying fake certificates.
Will these factors result in Taiwanese consumers being exposed to even greater food safety risks than they already are? Similar doubts apply to import and export quarantine and inspections of raw and processed agricultural products in the planned free economic pilot zones.