I was probably the first professor in Taiwan to teach a university-level food safety class and a postgraduate food toxicology course. During the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), I participated in discussions to allow imports of US beef containing traces of ractopamine, and was part of the decision to permit imports of US pork containing the leanness-enhancing additive.
I am not an expert on ractopamine, as I have never done any research on the drug, but I have taught classes about the health dangers of foods containing traces of harmful substances.
When US beef imports were about to be allowed, then-minister of health and welfare Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達), whose expertise is in neurosurgery, invited me to join him in a televised interview. I told him that as the issue had already been politicized, I would be criticized regardless of what I said.
In the US, some farms start adding 10 parts per million (ppm) to 25ppm of ractopamine to animal feed about six weeks before the animal is to be slaughtered. After five weeks, they are again fed the additive for a week.
For pigs, 5ppm to 10ppm of ractopamine is added to the feed three to four weeks before slaughter to increase the proportion of lean meat. Doing so also accelerates growth slightly.
Studies have shown that the half-life of ractopamine in humans and animals is about four hours, meaning that only half of the original ractopamine traces remain after that period. Compared with remaining traces of most other harmful substances, ractopamine excretion is faster.
There is a common saying in food toxicology: “Any substance could be toxic, but would it be harmful to the body? That depends on the total remaining trace amount.”
For example, if a person drinks more water than they discharge, the amount of water in their body would at some point reach a level that results in acute poisoning, which could be fatal.
A sufficiently small amount of a toxic substance might not affect the body negatively. The largest dose the body can sustain is referred to as the “maximum tolerable level.”
If someone asked me if I would like to eat beef or pork containing traces of ractopamine, my answer would be “no.”
If someone asked me to eat 5kg of beef and pork with 0.01ppm ractopamine every day, I would say: “I can’t eat that much meat. If I forced it down, the ractopamine would not cause any harm to my body, but if I ate that much meat every day, that would harm my body as a result of an imbalanced diet.”
In other words, it would be impossible to eat so much beef and pork containing traces of ractopamine that the drug intake exceeded the maximum tolerable level.
In US President Donald Trump’s first year in office, he wanted to renegotiate all US trade agreements, and I had the opportunity to join a round of talks in Washington.
At a banquet held on the day of our arrival, then-American Institute in Taiwan director Kin Moy mentioned the obstacles to US pork imports, and stressed the importance of looking at the science.
However, pork was not on the agenda in those talks.
I am not a trade expert, nor am I an expert on international relations, but during a few trade exchanges with various countries — including on agricultural economic development with developing nations — I have acquired a deep sense of the nation’s need for international friends due to Taiwan’s situation.
In contacts with others, we cannot always focus on gaining an advantage or just those things that are only beneficial to ourselves. This is just as true in international relations as it is between a married couple.
Jimmy Tsai is chair professor in the Department of Bioscience Technology at Chung Yuan Christian University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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