It was not all that long ago that the government guaranteed that its “three management and five checkpoint” measures for the importation of US beef would prevent problematic meat products from ending up on tables. So why is it that reports have come out of high-class restaurants serving steaks that contain the leanness-enhancing agent zilpaterol?
A few days ago, the Ministry of Health and Welfare guaranteed once again that it would strictly inspect beef imports, but can this really stop people from consuming beef with zilpaterol in it?
It is highly doubtful.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows US cattle breeders to add leanness-enhancing agents like ractopamine and zilpaterol, saying these two additives are low in toxicity and that as long as they do not exceed allowable standards, the beef produced will be safe. The FDA has also come up with maximum residue limits for ractopamine and zilpaterol of 10 parts per billion (ppb). The agency believes that consuming beef that contains 10ppb of the aforementioned leanness-enhancing agents will not affect public health.
From September last year to date this year, many shipments of US beef containing zilpaterol have been found by customs officials, as well as in stores and restaurants. While only between 0.3ppb and 0.4ppb of zilpaterol was found in these products, they were all sent back, or confiscated and destroyed. However, it is quite ironic to think that while this beef is safe according to FDA standards and people in the US, where food safety is given much more attention, can eat it, here in Taiwan, where food safety is laxer, people cannot eat it.
In September, South Korea imposed a total ban on the import of US beef after finding beef containing zilpaterol — an action that upset several well-known US meat suppliers. Video footage of cattle that could not walk properly and were falling over as a result of the additives was shown, and buyers say they refuse to purchase this type of beef. This caused a series of selling and price wars in the industry.
So what are the chances of zilpaterol-laced beef ending up here in Taiwan, where food safety checks are lax? It is little wonder that in recent months, local health authorities have found US beef containing zilpaterol in local restaurants.
It is said that as many as 70 percent of US cattle farms do not use leanness-enhancing agents and, as such, it should not be hard for Taiwan to import US beef that is free of such agents.
There are several well-known chain restaurants and meat suppliers in the US that claim that their products are natural and that they do not contain any additives like leanness-enhancing agents.
They charge high prices and they still have a strong customer base. So, why cannot Taiwanese officials demand US beef that is 100-percent free of leanness-enhancing agents during trade talks with the US.
US beef containing zilpaterol that has been seized has either been sent back or destroyed; this is not something US exporters can be too happy about. It is inevitable that the US Congress will apply pressure on the US government.
Sooner or later, US officials will demand that Taiwan reopen trade talks for the importation of beef and there is a high possibility that Taiwan will once again loosen controls because of political concerns.
Just like what happened with ractopamine, US beef containing zilpaterol will also flood Taiwanese shopping aisles and restaurants.
Liou Pei-pai is a former director of the Taiwan Animal Health Research Institute.
Translated by Drew Cameron