Taiwan can learn from EU over US beef issue

By Winston Dang 陳重信  / 

Thu, Mar 29, 2012 - Page 8

On March 6, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its requirements for exports to the EU. Those requirements included demands that prior to the export of beef, samples must be taken by inspectors in charge at slaughter facilities specified by the EU and sent for analysis. In other words, prior to their export to the EU, liver, kidney, muscle tissue, fat and urine samples must first be analyzed to show that they do not contain residues of the leanness-enhancing additives ractopamine and zilpaterol, the heavy metals lead and cadmium, or other toxins. Only beef with zero amounts of such additives and toxins can be exported to the EU.

Annually, the EU imports about 30,000 tonnes of US beef — called organic beef — a similar volume to the level imported by Taiwan. This year, the EU is increasing imports to 45,000 tonnes.

The EU uses a model that has been adopted by many advanced countries that require inspections overseas. Taiwan, on the other hand, enforces the so-called “three controls and five checkpoints,” in which the product first enters the country before huge sums are spent on sample inspection. This is a waste of national capital and social resources and serves only to stoke public concerns.

Consumers’ Foundation studies show that up to 70 percent of the public oppose meat products containing leanness--enhancing additives. The best policy when attempting to resolve the US beef controversy, which has now dragged on for four or five years, would be to learn from the EU, focus on overseas inspections and adopt zero--tolerance policies.

US data indicates that young cattle are fed milk and grass; it is only when they are older that about three-quarters are moved into cowsheds where they receive corn and other feed or are fed leanness-enhancing additives, antibiotics, hormones and other drugs.

According to Chou Chin-cheng (周晉澄), dean of National Taiwan University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, only about 35 percent of cattle in cowsheds, which do not eat grass, are given leanness-enhancing additives.

I have confirmed with USDA officials at the American Institute in Taiwan that the US produces about 360,000 tonnes of organic beef — from cattle that have not been given leanness-enhancing additives — annually, about one-tenth of which is purchased by the EU.

If Taiwan switched to organic beef, consumer prices would increase by 15 to 20 percent. Many people say that the price of high-quality beef free of leanness-enhancing additives and antibiotics should be decided by the market.

Although Taiwan is a member of the WTO, the ongoing US beef controversy has developed into a situation where the buyer is being forced to do what the seller wants.

Bizarrely, the president has gone on TV to say that he wants everyone living in Taiwan to ingest leanness-enhancing additives — which are still suspected of being toxic — and that they should do so “for the sake of the country.”

However, Taiwan is not North Korea. A solution to this issue should reflect public health concerns and nothing else.

With a government that has shown itself to be incapable of managing, but adept at playing tricks with food safety issues while putting on a show worthy of an election, the public is all but certain to refuse to consume meat products containing leanness-enhancing additives.

Taiwan needs to consider the EU model so that Taiwanese can consume meat without any nagging health concerns.

Winston Dang is a former head of the Environmental Protection Administration and foreign relations adviser to the Democratic Progressive Party.

Translated by Perry Svensson