The issue of US pork and beef imports has once again become controversial. However, it is also an opportune moment for Taiwan to stop prioritizing political judgements over scientific risk assessments for every food safety issue.
The US pork and beef issue is a long-standing obstacle to improving Taiwan-US trade relations. As well as not abiding by international standards, Taiwan has repeatedly failed to keep its promises.
Regarding US beef, the World Organization for Animal Health classified the US as a controlled zone for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, in 2007, and as a negligible risk zone in 2013.
Australia, Japan and other countries are also negligible risk zones, but Taiwan only applies age limits for cattle to US beef, so the US accuses Taiwan of disregarding international standards and imposing discriminatory conditions.
The experiences of South Korea and Japan can be used as reference points for Taiwan’s situation. South Korea suspended imports of US beef in 2003, but in 2006 signed a protocol with the US to allow imports of beef from US cattle under the age of 30 months. This concession cleared the way for launching US-South Korean free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations the same year.
However, after the FTA was signed, the US carried on asking South Korea to allow imports of US beef from cattle of any age.
Many South Koreans felt that the government was sacrificing food safety for the sake of an FTA. South Korea’s way of calming the controversy was to encourage traders from both countries to reach a transitional plan under which South Korea would not allow imports of beef from cattle over the age of 30 months until consumer confidence was restored.
The US government cooperated by guaranteeing the quality of US beef sold to South Korea by approving beef only from farms certified under the US Department of Agriculture’s Quality System Assessment Program, and by agreeing to incorporate the above-mentioned private commercial plan as an annex to the official protocol.
South Korea still does not permit imports of beef from cattle of any age, but the US has not made a fuss about it because South Korea promised in the FTA to gradually reduce its 40 percent tariff on US beef to zero by 2026.
Japan had similar restrictions on US beef, but at the beginning of last year it started allowing imports of beef from cattle of any age from the US, Canada and Ireland, which are all negligible risk zones. This measure abides by international standards and eliminates trade discrimination.
Subsequently, in April last year, Japan commenced negotiations for an FTA with the US that partially went into effect in January.
The Japanese and South Korean experiences show that tackling the US beef issue is a precondition for bilateral trade negotiations. Japan and South Korea carried out their international obligations, despite facing pressure from domestic sectors.
Taiwan could take an equally creative approach by talking to the US about rebuilding consumer confidence and gradually removing restrictions, and about strengthening quality control measures regarding US pork and beef, such as improving traceability. It could also ask to delay tariff cuts, so as to retain some flexibility with regard to food safety.
Such measures could be Taiwan’s best option, because they would take care of its international obligations while also responding to public worries.
Yen Huai-shing is deputy director of the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research’s Economic Law Research Center.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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