Science is often used as a political and economic bargaining chip in international talks on food safety, as seen in the recent dispute about beef between Taiwan and the US, a former US official said recently.
“The issues of agriculture and food safety are often used as chips for politicians. Unfortunately, I don’t think these things will stop in the foreseeable future,” Joseph Jen (任築山), an undersecretary for research, education and economics in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2001 to 2005, said in an interview on Friday.
“True science has been ignored so far,” said the 72-year-old scientist, who emigrated from Taiwan to the US in 1962 and retired last year as the dean of the College of Agriculture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Political and economic factors are usually placed above food safety in most international agricultural negotiations because most countries send diplomatic officials, rather than scientists, to handle the talks, Jen said.
The recent dispute between Taiwan and the US over imports of US beef is just one example of the complexity that arises when science is mixed with politics, he said.
The legislature passed an amendment in January last year that banned imports of selected beef products from countries, including the US, with documented cases of mad cow disease in the past decade.
That meant that US beef products seen as posing potential health risks, such as ground beef and organs, were barred from entering Taiwan, in contravention of a bilateral beef trade protocol signed by the two countries in October 2009.
Tensions over beef arose again this January, when US beef products found to contain residue of ractopamine — a feed additive used to promote the growth of lean meat that is banned in Taiwan — were taken off the shelves of local stores.
The move prompted the US to call off a long anticipated meeting under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, an official framework for Taiwan-US dialogue on trade and economic issues in the absence of diplomatic ties.
Jen said Taiwan’s decision last year was not based on scientific research because the probability of contracting mad cow disease by consuming US beef was lower than being hit by a car.
As for this year’s dispute, Jen said Taiwan cited the EU’s zero tolerance policy on ractopamine to justify the ban and would wait for the conclusions of a meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in July that will set maximum residue levels for ractopamine, before reconsidering the issue.
However, even then, politics and science are mixing because the EU and the Codex both have been heavily influenced by politics, Jen said.
“Its [the Codex’s] science is politically approved science, not the real science,” he said, calling the EU “the main culprit” of mixing science with politics, starting with its condemnation of US-produced genetically modified organism products.
Food safety is a complicated issue because many people and processes are involved in the production chain, said Jen, who received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural chemistry from National Taiwan University in 1960.
“The keys for modern-day scientists are ‘probability’ and ‘risk assessment,’ because there is no such thing as a ‘zero risk.’ There is no magic wand that can solve anything in a blink of an eye either,” he said.