Beef controversy a political issue

By Chen I-chung 陳宜中  / 

Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - Page 8

Before last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, most Japanese specialists would have had us believe there was no need to worry about nuclear safety. After the accident, there were still some specialists who argued that this type of event occurs only once in several hundred years, so there was no need to alter current policy.

Of course, one needs to take a scientific approach to policy formulation, whether it is on nuclear power or lean meat-enhancing additives. However, in certain cases, using scientific conclusions to support a policy to absolve oneself of political responsibility might also go against the spirit of science.

Some individuals insist there is no scientific evidence to show that food injected with the feed additive ractopamine is harmful to the human body. However, for a long time before nicotine was found to be harmful, scientists were saying there was no evidence to prove that this was the case.

So, is meat with leanness-enhancing agents harmful to humans? A more responsible way of putting it, and one that is more in keeping with the spirit of science, is that the limited amount of research conducted to date is as yet insufficient to show that ractopamine is a clear and evident risk to humans, but neither is it sufficient to dispel any suspicions that it might be.

Given the lack of conclusive scientific evidence, the decision of whether to allow US beef imports is purely a political one, and has nothing to do with scientific fact.

Politically speaking, the issue of importing US beef containing ractopamine residues is clearly related to pressure from Washington. Taiwan and the US signed an agreement in 2009 lifting the ban on US beef imports — only to have the legislature reinstate the ban a few months later in the face of public anger and the government to introduce “three management and five checkpoint” (三管五卡) measures, referring to regular inspections of meat products at processing factories, the border and in markets. Whether these measures were strictly implemented is another issue, but the US authorities were not happy with the situation and have continued to apply pressure on Taiwan to amend its food safety law.

In 2008, the South Korean government signed an agreement with the US on meat imports, a compromise necessary to pave the way for the signing of a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA). However, this proved to be unpopular, with hundreds of thousands of South Koreans holding candlelight vigils and protests. In 2009, Taiwan signed a protocol agreement with the US — elaborately titled the “Protocol of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-Related Measures for the Importation of Beef and Beef Products for Human Consumption from the Territory of the Authorities Represented by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) (台美牛肉議定書)” — which was more exacting than the 2008 US-South Korea version. If importing US beef is to be a precondition for signing an FTA with the US, Taiwan evidently has to compromise much more than South Korea did.

About 20 countries, including South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, impose a 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit on ractopamine residues on meat imports. US beef producers are hoping that Taiwan — which currently has zero tolerance for ractopamine — will adopt similar standards. They are hoping that easing this standard would allow them to sell a considerable amount of beef to Taiwan.

Who knows whether this is actually the case. The “three management and five checkpoint” measures have not been entirely successful, and US beef containing traces of ractopamine has continued to find its way into Taiwan despite the prohibition. If the government does end up lifting the ban and allowing US beef with under 10ppb of ractopamine residue to be legally imported into Taiwan, it is by no means sure how much US beef producers will actually gain as a result.

Both the EU and China ban lean meat additives. The US has pressured the EU on the issue to no avail and has been equally unsuccessful with China — and yet it continues to keep up the pressure on Taiwan, which is in a much weaker position. And therein lies the crux of the whole issue.

Taiwanese have borne the brunt of a litany of health scares without making too much of a fuss for ages now, so why all this resistance to US beef imports? One explanation is that, in politics, it is one thing to accept one kind of health risk, and an entirely different matter to have a foreign power force us, through a mixture of intimidation and incentive, to swallow another (real or imagined, as the case may be).

The lean meat additive issue is not about scientific proof, but a political test of how the government deals with pressure from a major foreign power. An issue as seemingly minor as this one has the government falling all over itself trying to please the US rather than trying to persuade it otherwise. This does not bode well for how the government will bear up under greater economic or political pressure on other issues from the US or China in the future.

Chen I-chung is an associate research fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Academia Sinica.

Translated by Paul Cooper