I have long feared the day would come when US pork injected with leanness-inducing additives would be allowed into Taiwan.
In 2012, the Codex Alimentarius Commission — established in 1963 to protect the health of consumers, ensure fair practices in the global food trade and promote coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations — set the permitted limits for residue amounts of ractopamine, a leanness inducing chemical. For pork and beef products, this limit was set at 10 parts per billion (ppb) for meat and fat, 40ppb in liver and 90ppb in kidneys.
These standards were a long time in coming: The commission spent many years debating the correct levels, and it took several votes before they were successfully passed with 69 votes for and 67 against. According to a European Food Safety Authority report issued then, leanness-inducing chemicals can affect people with cardiovascular disease, and given the lack of current studies on ethnic groups, or on sufficiently large sample sizes, there is inadequate scientific evidence that these additives have no adverse health effects.
Three years have passed, and still many countries — including major livestock producing countries such as China, Russia and all the EU member states — are reluctant to accept the adoption of these international standards. That is, the use of this additive is actually banned in about 70 percent of the swine raised for global consumption. Its use is permitted in the US, but is it used in all beef and pork livestock in the US? Of course not.
It is not used in US beef and pork products bound for the EU, and neither is it allowed to be present as residue in pork products exported to Taiwan. Are there leanness-inducing chemical residues in the pork and beef products Americans eat? Again, of course not. US consumers can select additive-free pork products in their supermarkets.
About 20 years ago, these additives were used in pig rearing in Taiwan. While the pigs were much leaner, they did exhibit some adverse effects in the rearing process, manifested in some unusual sitting postures. Something was evidently wrong with the animals, and they would occasionally keel over when at auction. This was extremely embarrassing in Taiwan, a country that prides itself on its animal husbandry. So does this mean that now we will be using leanness-inducing additives, even though they were banned some time ago? Heaven only knows whether the authorities have laid out any requirements, because the public certainly has not been privy to any.
More adventurous countries might want to permit the use of additives such as ractopamine in the spirit of democratic freedom, but what are the repercussions for smaller economies that, under the political realities of international trade, are reliant on other countries? Does it mean that they have to allow certain products to clear customs, only to subject them to strict controls once in the country? Which way will Taiwan go? Will it just do what it did with the import of US beef, and announce that there are no health concerns?
There are those who say that allowing the import of US pork with leanness-inducing additives is simply a necessary evil to facilitate international alignment. Is Taiwan required to swallow a necessary evil for the sake of international alignment? Or should it choose a necessary good for the sake of caution when it comes to health? Or is there another option? One that will be able to simultaneously address the economic aspect, as well as the health of Taiwanese?
Chou Chin-cheng is the dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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