No one would have expected that the controversial issue of the importation of US pork containing ractopamine and beef from cattle over 30 months old would be upon them while the nation still fights COVID-19. No one would oppose bolstering Taiwan-US economic and trade relations, nor would anyone oppose boosting Taiwan’s international status.
Food safety and diplomacy require a high level of expertise, but here are a few suggestions that perhaps could help end the dispute.
Public concerns over ractopamine have had an impact on Taiwan-US trade talks since 2007, stretching across the administrations of former presidents Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as well as incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and people still remember the food safety scandals involving plasticizer, tainted starch, cooking oil containing copper chlorophyllin as well as the “gutter oil” scandal.
A new food safety scandal has erupted almost every year, severely damaging consumer confidence, while having a negative impact on Taiwan’s image as a paradise for gourmets. No wonder that people are particularly sensitive to the phrase “food safety.”
The planned lifting of a ban on US pork and beef has once again pushed a button, raising concerns that the government is exchanging public health for diplomatic benefit, and it has also led to political wrangling between the central and local governments.
Taiwan has seen few food safety issues in the past few years. The appointment of Chiang Been-huang (蔣丙煌), a food science and technology expert from National Taiwan University (NTU), to be minister of health and welfare during the Ma administration, and Wu Kun-yuh (吳焜裕), a professor at the university’s public health department, as a Democratic Progressive Party legislator-at-large, have proven to improve food safety, which has been greatly appreciated by all Taiwanese.
Taking a long-term approach, the Ministry of Education in 2016 initiated a program to cultivate food safety professionals. The program included setting up food safety graduate institutes at six universities: National Yang-Ming University, NTU, National Cheng Kung University, National Chung Hsing University, National Taiwan Ocean University and National Pingtung University of Science and Technology.
The institutes are the bases for cultivating food safety professionals. They are in northern, central and southern Taiwan, and they are all well-prepared.
Now is the time for the government to summon those six institutes to form a national food safety team to protect the health of all Taiwanese.
Taiwan is a liberal democracy, and Taiwanese are free to choose if they want to purchase pork containing ractopamine so long as it meets the required safety standards. The government should stand back, but it has a responsibility to provide open and transparent information.
As the public suspects that the government is sacrificing their health, this is the moment when food safety should be approached from a scientific and legal perspective to analyze the pros and cons and health effects of US pork and beef imports.
The Institute of Food Safety and Health Risk Assessment was established to cultivate cross-disciplinary talent within the fields of toxicology, risk assessment, public administration and communication, and also to promote improvement within the food industry.
The experts must be allowed to speak their mind and allow consumers to make an informed judgement on which meat to buy.
Food safety is not dissimilar from epidemic prevention: Just as many people believe the nation must have “zero cases” of COVID-19 within society, the same “zero myth” exists in the minds of many with regards to food safety.
In reality, the environment contains a host of different elements, chemicals and substances, and ractopamine is just one of many different types of leanness-enhancing feed additives, yet everyone has zeroed in on it. To demand zero traces of ractopamine or any other “impure” substance in meat is unrealistic and betrays a lack of basic scientific understanding.
The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the importance of effective communication to prevent the spread of panic among the public. Food safety is no different from epidemic prevention: People need food safety professionals to step up and lead the public toward a more rational debate on this issue.
Steve Kuo is the president of National Yang-Ming University.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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