Yesterday the saga over the safety of US beef saw two main developments. First, the Department of Health said that US beef now in Taiwan's shops was safe and that there was no need to take it off the shelves. And in response, a group of legislators initiated a civil action for manslaughter against Department of Health Minister Hou Sheng-mao (
The safety of US beef has become a popular stick with which to beat the government. When it was announced that a second case of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad-cow disease" as the British tabloids christened it, had been found in the US, there was great embarrassment. After all, Taiwan had only two months previously lifted a ban on US beef in place since the discovery of the first BSE-infected cow in December 2003.
Immediately the government was attacked for lifting the ban too soon. In doing so, it had, so a number of lawmakers asserted, caved in to US pressure. Taiwan Solidarity Union Legislator Lai Shin-yuan (
The Consumer Foundation joined the chorus demanding that all US beef be immediately taken off the shelves. "The government is making a huge gamble with people's lives," said foundation chairman Jason Lee (
So far, so dumb. But yesterday's lawsuit takes the stupidity of the squabble over the safety of US beef to an entirely new level. The legislators and the Consumer Foundation in their desire to showboat, to play to the gallery as caring and useful tribunes defending the public's wellbeing, have preferred fear over facts. Both parties deserve condemnation and scorn rather than praise.
What are the facts? For a start, the BSE case in the US is not a new one. It was a retest of an old sample dating from last year, when the animal died. Under current US regulations, the animal could not have entered the food chain. it was too old -- over 30 months -- and was born before the regulations on the use of beef by-products in cattle feed were in place. This animal, as the American Institute in Taiwan pointed out, has nothing to do with the beef that was until last week imported into Taiwan. Add to this the fact that the World Animal Health Organization (WAHO) stated last month that boneless beef from cattle under 30 months old -- the only US beef available in Taiwan -- can be freely traded without risk to consumers, even from BSE-infected countries (as long as certain safeguards are in place, which in the US' case they are) and a reasonable person soon comes to the conclusion that US beef poses no danger.
Given these conditions, the government certainly caved in to pressure -- but not pressure from the US, but from unscrupulous, populist politicians. It should not have banned US beef, but explained clearly why such a ban was unnecessary. Those who do not believe in the WAHO's science or the effectiveness of US slaughterhouse regulation could simply choose not to eat US beef. Let the market decide. Which last weekend it did; consumers flocked to the stores to purchase US beef, expecting that stores would cut prices to get the meat off their shelves before they might be compelled to take it off. At least the public has shown some common sense.
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