Small amounts of the livestock feed additive ractopamine will not cause harm to the human body, but a standard for residue levels in meat must be established, academics said yesterday, amid concerns in some quarters that the government could soon lift the ban on US beef containing the chemical.
The human body has the ability to tolerate and process moderate amounts of ractopamine residues in beef and pork, said Lai Shiow-suey (賴秀穗), a professor at National Taiwan University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
Lai said ractopamine is used as a feed additive in more than 20 countries, including the US where it was first approved in 1999 for pig-rearing.
Over the past 13 years, there has not been a reported case of anyone in the US being poisoned by ractopamine residues,” Lai said.
Many of the people who are opposed to ractopamine are not professionals and are therefore not qualified to make a judgment on the issue, he added.
The public often confuse ractopamine with sports performance-enhancing drugs like albutamol and clenbuterol that are more toxic, the professor said.
Advanced agricultural countries like Australia, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan have all adopted a Maximum Residue Level (MRL) for ractopamine, Lai said, though the drug is banned in the EU and China for domestic and political reasons.
It has been reported that the Sichuan Pork Trade Chamber of Commerce in China produced statistics showing that from 1998 to 2010 there were 20 ractopamine poisoning incidents in China that affected 1,700 people and caused one death.
A Shenzhen newspaper in China also reported that in September 2010, 13 people were poisoned by ractopamine found in snake meat in the city.
In 2010, China’s Xinhua news agency said that more than 70 residents of Guangzhou Province had fallen ill after eating pork tainted with ractopamine.
However, as long as livestock farmers observe an MRL standard, adverse effects such as palpitations and tremors in humans are unlikely, said Wang Jen-hsien (王任賢) from the Taiwan Counter Contagious Diseases Society.
Although health hazards are potentially everywhere, what is important is that the government sets appropriate restrictions, he said.
“Cows are usually raised in a natural environment rather than in an isolated laboratory,” he said. “With sensitive enough instruments, you could probably find anything you were looking for in their meat, including mercury.”
Meanwhile, a public health specialist said that a comprehensive study should be conducted before the government moves toward drafting MRL standards for ractopamine.
The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) should also talk to consumers on the issue, said Wu Kuen-yuh (吳焜裕), an associate professor at NTU’s Institute of Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene.
Washington has been pressing Taipei to lift its ban on meat containing ractopamine residues, which was introduced in 2006.
Last year, after Taiwan blocked shipments of US beef containing residues of the leanness enhancing chemical, the US extended the suspension of talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between the two sides.
During its first term, the Ma administration was reluctant to give way on the issue, saying that ractopamine posed potential health risks to humans.