President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) instructed the executive and legislative branches yesterday to send representatives to Washington to mend fences after the US government warned that legislative moves to bar imports of some US beef and beef products would “constitute a unilateral abrogation of a bilateral agreement concluded in good faith” just two months ago.
On Tuesday, lawmakers from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) agreed that no ground beef or bovine offal from the US would be allowed to enter Taiwan. The DPP caucus accepted a revised KMT motion to amend the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) that would ban imports of “risky” substances, including brains, eyes, spinal cords, intestines, ground beef and other related beef products from areas in which mad cow disease has been reported in the past decade.
The decision will be finalized in a vote scheduled for Tuesday. Passage of the amendment will partially overturn the Department of Health’s (DOH) announcement in October that imports of US beef on the bone and bovine organs would be allowed.
The legislative move has caused dismay in Washington.
“We are deeply concerned and disappointed by reports that Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan has taken initial steps toward the passage of an amendment to the Food Sanitation Act that contains provisions that would unjustifiably bar the import of certain US beef and beef products,” the US Trade Representative office and the Department of Agriculture said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
“The proposed amendment’s provisions do not have a basis in science or fact and thus in no way serve to protect Taiwan’s food supply,” the statement said.
“If passed, this amendment would represent a new barrier to US beef exports to Taiwan, and would constitute a unilateral abrogation of a bilateral agreement concluded in good faith by the United States with Taiwan just two months ago,” the statement said.
“The Taiwan authorities should consider very carefully the impact that passage of the amendment in its current form would have on Taiwan’s reputation as a reliable trading partner and responsible member of the international community,” it said. “Science and facts — not politics or hyperbole — should govern our trade and economic relations.”
“This is a serious matter that concerns us greatly and we are monitoring the legislative process very closely,” the statement said.
Ma held a meeting yesterday to discuss how the executive and legislative branches should respond; attendees included Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), National Security Council (NSC) Secretary-General Su Chi (蘇起), Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添), KMT Secretary-General King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) and DOH officials.
Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) told a press conference after the closed-door meeting that the Presidential Office respected the legislative consensus. The office also acknowledged that both the government and the legislature would have to shoulder responsibility for the issue.
The Presidential Office also supported an amendment that would allow the import of bone-in beef from cattle younger than 30 months old, Wang said.
In a bid to mend ties with Washington, Wang said Ma instructed the executive branch to send a delegation to the US next week to explain the situation in the hopes of minimizing damage to bilateral relations.
He also directed the legislature to form a lobbying group composed of lawmakers, experts, academics, consumers and civic group representatives to visit the US after the legislature goes into a recess late next month.
The Executive Yuan will discuss the issue during its weekly meeting today, Wang said.
This is not the time to decide who is to blame for the controversy because the nation needs to brace for possible repercussions, he said.
“It is bound to impact Taiwan-US relations,” he said. “The top priority is to focus on how to deal with the matter. We recognize the legislature’s intention to jointly shoulder the consequences.”
While the legislature is set to vote on a DPP proposal to hold a referendum on the matter, Wang said the position of the KMT caucus was clear. In other words, it would use its legislative majority to vote against the proposal.
The government had conducted risk assessment and opinion polls at the start of the year, Wang said, but he declined to comment on whether it had misjudged the situation, saying “the situation took an unexpected direction.”
He also declined to speculate on worst-case scenarios, saying he was in no position to comment, but if Washington did decide to retaliate, it might be economically.
“We hope we can persuade the US to understand and respect public opinion in Taiwan and understand the legislative consensus was reached through a democratic process,” he said.
Both the KMT and the DPP caucuses urged the US yesterday to respect the decision to amend the law.
KMT caucus secretary-general Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟) said legislators had to amend the law to safeguard the public’s health. A number of KMT legislators said the legislative consensus should serve as a reminder for the Ma government in future endeavors.
KMT Legislator Wu Yu-sheng (吳育昇) called the consensus a “warning” and urged the Ma government to review its actions.
“This experience can teach the government a lesson,” KMT Legislator Ho Tsai-feng (侯彩鳳) said.
Although the administration erred in signing the beef protocol with the US, it’s not too late to amend its flaws, Lu said.
By respecting the legislature’s decision, Ma was showing respect for democratic politics, Lu said.
DPP members said the US must respect the will of the Taiwanese on the beef issue because it has failed to convince the public of the safety of its beef products. The party also urged the Ma government to come clean on its “underhanded” beef deal with Washington.
“We strongly condemn President Ma Ying-jeou’s team for making backroom deals with the US which resulted in this ridiculous protocol. NSC Secretary-General Su Chi and senior officials of the Ma administration must be held accountable for this,” DPP spokesman Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) said.
Despite its repeated assurances about the safety of its beef products, Washington had failed to provide enough scientific evidence and its video conference with a full line-up of meat experts “did not convince” the public, the DPP said.
Tuesday’s consensus represented the collective view of the Taiwanese and the US must understand as well as respect the democratic process, Tsai said. The DPP said it would continue to stand in solidarity with the public in safeguarding the public health.
The DPP also demanded that two supplementary items be added to the amendment — that the ban on meat from cattle older than 30 months be maintained and that a referendum on US bone-in beef imports be held.
Yang, however, said backing out of the protocol could hurt Taiwan’s international credibility and its trade relations with the US.
However, he used the phrase, “China-US relations” (中美關係) rather than “Taiwan-US relations” (台美關係).
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