Why is the US twisting arms over beef imports to Taiwan?

Activists hold placards during a protest against Taiwan government’s plan to allow beef imports from the United States in front of the cabinet building (Executive Yuan) in Taipei March 7, 2012. Photo: Wall Street Journal
This is a question on everyone’s mind these days: Why is the US so seemingly desperate to dump its offal onto Taiwan consumers, with or without the ‘leanness’ (growth hormone) drug, ractopamine? It would seem that substantial U.S. economic interests as well as the Taiwan government’s attempts to safeguard future trade agreements are at play here.

Students protested outside the American Institute in Taiwan today as the government promised to tighten its supervision of meat imports.

When the protesters moved to perform a skit which included the burning of a Statue of Liberty replica, police detained two protesters and took them to a local station for questioning, reports said. They also took away the statue effigy and the fuel needed to light it (Source: Taiwan News).

On Thursday, thousands of Taiwanese farmers protested the ractopamine decision in Taipei by hurling eggs and trash at a central-government building (Source: Voice of America).

Maybe at least part of the US ‘bull-ying’ stems from the fact that Taiwan has been a huge market in the past for offal products? Voice of America (US State Department’s international radio) reports that Taiwan is one of the top overseas consumers of American beef, which accounts for about $128 million of total U.S. imports worth more than $26 billion. It is second only to China in this regard.

VOA also opines that “Taiwan’s parliament must sign off on the Cabinet decision on a maximum ractopamine level, but most legislators belong to the ruling party and are expected to support the recommendation.”

A survey conducted by the government of Taiwan has found that fewer people support its policy on conditionally lifting a ban on ractopamine residues in beef imports. Most people want specific conditions within the policy. The survey, conducted by the Cabinet-level Research, Development and Evaluation Commission, found that 42.8% of respondents agreed with relaxing the ban on the leanness-enhancing drug while 48.4% did not, the Cabinet said in a statement this week. But the policy received more support when each of the four conditions were considered. The Cabinet announced it was leaning toward lifting the ractopamine ban based on the principles of “allowing a safe level of ractopamine in beef, separating the permits for importing beef and pork, clearly labeling beef imports and excluding imports of internal organs.” (Source: http://www.asian-agribiz.com)

The Economist’s take on the beefy issue: Thousands of pig farmers throng the streets of Taipei in protest. Demonstrators march on America’s informal embassy wearing Uncle Sam hats and leering cow masks. Opposition lawmakers chant slogans and occupy the speaker’s podium in parliament, disrupting the opening session and delaying the prime minister’s inaugural speech. These are all episodes in a growing row over meat imports into Taiwan that is pitting America, the island’s most important ally, against the vast mass of public opinion—and forcing the government of President Ma Ying-jeou to manoeuvre frantically between the two.

At issue are American exports to Taiwan of meat that contains ractopamine, a controversial growth compound fed to cattle and pigs which is banned by Taiwan, the European Union and China. The Americans want Taiwan to lift its ban. They point out that 27 countries have found meat from animals fed with ractopamine to be safe for humans, and are asking Taiwan to set maximum residue levels for allowable amounts instead. America has made clear that unless this is done it will not agree to any new economic initiatives with Taiwan, including bilateral tax and investment agreements. And it will also not champion Taiwan’s membership of the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a nascent multilateral free-trade group.

Yet public opinion and Taiwanese meat producers vociferously support the ban. They claim that over 100 countries ban the use of the drug (a claim the Americans contest). Toxicologists also argue that residual concentrations of the drug are five to ten times higher in offal, which is eaten by Asians but not often by Americans.

President Ma is caught in the middle. He cannot afford to offend the majority of the island’s citizens. A poll in mid-February found that 71% support the ban even if it harms relations with America. But he also says that getting Taiwan into a position to join the TPP is one of his main goals. His officials want to start trade-liberalisation talks with other countries because they worry that dependence on China will give the mainland too great an influence on the island’s economy. And restarting trade talks with America, suspended almost five years ago in a previous round of arguments over beef (this time over mad-cow disease), is high on Mr Ma’s to-do list. So, seizing an opportune moment immediately after his re-election as president in January, Mr Ma set out to defuse the row.

He told a visiting American official in early February that his cabinet would take a “fresh approach”, proposing a panel to solicit technical advice on the health risks and the feasibility of lifting the ban. This caused uproar, which quietened down only when the prime minister promised not to lift the ban before June. Squabbles broke out in parliament, with opposition members accusing the president of doing a secret deal with America before the election (which he denies). America then called off what would have been the highest-ranking official visit in a decade, that of a senior trade diplomat.

On March 6th the government put forward a new compromise: the ractopamine ban on meat from cattle would be replaced by maximum residue levels, but blanket restrictions would remain on imported offal from cows and on all pork. The cabinet gave no timetable for introducing the plan, and said it would continue to discuss it. The opposition vowed to bring the government down over the proposal, which has to be approved in parliament. That approval cannot be taken for granted.

In the Wall Street Journal: Will Taiwan’s proposed serving of U.S. beef give it a seat at the table in the next round of trade talks?

Taiwanese officials on Wednesday said they would recommend a conditional lifting of restrictions against U.S. beef that contains a “safe level” of ractopamine, a meat-leanness enhancer used by U.S. cattle raisers, to the legislature. Lawmakers can still reject the proposal, as they did with a similar one two years ago.

Taiwan, along with China and the EU, has a zero-tolerance policy on the chemical agent, citing health concerns. But the U.S. insists the beef meets international standards and is safe for human consumption.

The beef impasse has been a sore spot in Taiwan-U.S. trade relations. Following the initial restrictions, Washington in 2007 suspended trade talks with the island under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, or TIFA, the forum under which the two are supposed to hammer out trade issues. Taiwanese media speculated this week that the last-minute trip cancellation by Francisco Sanchez, an Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, was a show of U.S. impatience.

Taiwan has made inroads in broadening trade and economic ties with China, but the island continues to seek wider access to the international market by striving to sign free-trade agreements or similar trade pacts with the U.S. and other regional partners, especially amid the emergence of South Korea, Taiwan’s biggest competitors. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who won a close re-election contest earlier this year, has pushed such agreements to give added oomph to the island’s economy.

Taiwan may have its eyes on a bigger prize, says the Wall Street Journal. Taiwan is also seeking a U.S. endorsement of its bid for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Without TIFA, there would be no platform to discuss an FTA [free-trade agreement] with the U.S., which will also affect Taiwan’s hope to join TPP in the next 10 years,” economic minister Shih Yen-hsiang told local reporters.

It remains to be seen how the legislature will deliberate on the matter, but it appears the cabinet’s recent decision has only further fueled the local anti-U.S. beef sentiment.

The Democratic Progressive Party, the island’s biggest opposition party with 35% of the legislature’s seats, has already threatened to slow work over the matter.

The government said the partial ban will pertain only to beef, while all import pork must remain ractopamine-free. Still, the proposal also faces opposition from the local hog-farm industry.

“It feels like the government has slapped us in the face,” said Pan Liang-chou, the head of the hog raiser association, who plans to lead a protest on Thursday.

While Taiwan has no local cattle industry to speak of, the hog farming community is a vital and strong part of Taiwan’s agriculture business. Agriculture is roughly 1.7% of Taiwan’s total GDP in 2011, according to the government statistic department.

China, meanwhile, continues to keep ractopamine under strict watch.

According to Taiwan News, the government promised it would toughen up checks of meat imports after health inspections over the past few weeks found ractopamine and other illegal substances in meat products at restaurants and supermarkets even though the ban has not been lifted yet.

Vice Premier Jiang Yi-huah said the government would do its utmost to restore public confidence in food safety. The measures included tougher checks and the eventual publication of the names of offenders, as well as inspections of each batch of imported meat products. Jiang chaired the first meeting of a new inter-ministerial food safety taskforce Friday morning. Its second meeting was scheduled for Sunday.

The Department of Health said it would begin checking all imported meat products batch by batch next week, but Jiang specified that only meat from countries that had a poor record on ractopamine would be subject to the thorough inspections.

The vice premier said that before that could start, a precise procedure had to be worked out to restrict delays to a minimum. The inspections could cause a bottleneck at the border and storage problems for businesses, he said.

According to the DOH plan, if five consecutive samples of meat from the same country proved to be safe, the checks would be cut down to cover only 20 percent of the meat, while five further inspections showing no ractopamine would lead to only 5 percent of the meat products being inspected.

Jiang also uttered the suggestion that more consumers’ rights groups and social organizations could participate in the process. The government has repeatedly come under fire for keeping its decision making about the ractopamine secret. A prominent academic walked out of an inter-ministerial meeting sponsored by the Council of Agriculture when his request for more openness was turned down. As a result, the next meeting was broadcast live to media.

In future, the government would also act immediately when receiving information about problem food by informing the public, Jiang said. The remark was interpreted as a reference to the recent bird flu outbreak in Changhua. The COA took two months to order a poultry cull after it had first learned of the outbreak. Prosecutors are investigating allegations of a government cover-up.

More inspections of meat products at markets, shops and restaurants were due to begin March 20, while the smuggling in of illegal substances and the addition of illegal drugs to animal feed would be targeted, reports said.

4 thoughts on “Why is the US twisting arms over beef imports to Taiwan?

  • April 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Taiwan Legislative Yuan suspends beef discussion after BSE case in US
    DPP urges government to follow South Korea and impose ban
    Taiwan News, Staff Writer
    2012-04-25 02:58 PM

    TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – The Legislative Yuan suspended its discussion of the ban on leanness drugs in beef Wednesday after the United States announced its fourth case of mad cow disease.
    The US Department of Agriculture confirmed bovine spongiform encephalopathy had been confirmed in a dairy cow in California’s Central Valley. The disease had been found in a carcass by a company specializing in removing dead animals from dairies.

    The Legislature’s Social Welfare and Environmental Hygiene Committee was scheduled to review amendments to the Food Management Act Wednesday morning, including proposals to lift the ban on lean-meat agents and set maximum safety levels. The news from the US however caused the group to suspend its activities, at least for one day.

    President Ma Ying-jeou’s comments shortly after his re-election last January 14 that Taiwan would consider a new approach to its ban on ractopamine and other leanness drugs fed to beef in the US touched off widespread concerns about food safety.

    Opposition Democratic Progressive Party chief legislative whip Ker Chien-ming said the latest discovery showed even more that a total ban on lean-meat agents was necessary. He called for a clause-by-clause review and vote on the amendments, warning against the hasty approval of one big package of measures.

    Taiwan Solidarity Union lawmaker Lin Shih-chia called on the government and on ruling Kuomintang lawmakers not to approve the import of beef that could harm public health.

    The opposition also criticized the government for acting too slow compared to South Korea, which banned the import of US beef following the latest BSE outbreak. Seoul had declared the ban at 7 a.m. Wednesday, while two hours later, Taiwan’s Department of Health officials still had to go out and check whether the BSE outbreak had really happened, DPP legislator Liu Chien-kuo said. He advised the government to follow South Korea’s example and impose a ban on US beef.

    Speaking at the Legislative Yuan Wednesday morning, DOH Minister Chiu Wen-ta said that according to a bilateral agreement, the US should inform Taiwan’s government about any new BSE outbreak.

    American Institute in Taiwan spokesman Christopher Kavanagh told reporters that the US had informed Taiwan’s government of the latest developments as required. The new case did not pose any health risks to humans because the cow was not to be slaughtered for meat, he said, adding that contracting BSE by drinking milk from infected animals was not possible.

    Cabinet spokesman Philip Yang said the government would tighten up its inspections of US beef at the borders, a practice which came under fire the past few months after banned leanness drugs were found in several batches of meat at restaurants and supermarkets.

    He would not immediately speculate whether new measures would be forthcoming, saying that the government was closely watching the situation in the US.

    Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji visited the Executive Yuan Wednesday morning to present a report on the latest BSE case to Premier Sean Chen, Yang told reporters.

  • April 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    This statement is a prime example of a false argument. The issue is NOT whether or not to allow the importation of US beef. Taiwan already buys more US beef than the entire EU does. The issue is whether Taiwan should permit the importation of ractopamine – laced beef and beef “products“ (ie intestines and other offals which contain higher levels of ractopime and other chemicals) a deregulation which would serve as the thin edge of the wedge to compel Taiwan to permit the importation of ractopamine-laced pork at prices lower than domestically produced pork which cannot legally use the cost-reduction additive. This “liberalization“ would then effectively compel the KMT government (which probably does not need compelling anyway as the KMT is itself a conglomerate) to “deregulate“ the ban on the use of ractopamine (and why not other additives while we’re at it) in Taiwan livestock farming. The fall of Taiwan`s regulation would also put pressure on the United Nations – based CODEX food safety commission to agree to a pro-US position on setting a minimum residue level (MRL) even though there are no credible studies that show that ractopamine is good for the health of humans, with the exception of the pocketbooks of big beef corporations. There is another question is to why Taiwan should treat the US “lowest possible standard“as the sole acceptable “international standard“ in dealing with food safety instead of adopting the more progressive and safer European Union position of banning the use of all additives that do not have positive theraputic use, a position which is also an “international standard.“ Last but not least, we can take note that not even US consumers trust “US beef“ as marketed by US agribusiness as displayed in the current flap over “pink slime“ mixed with ground beef, an ammonia – treated “beef product“ declared “safe“ by the US Department of Agriculture but now being refused by most hamburger chains and supermarkets after “irrational“ protests and boycotts by US consumers. Shouldn`t Washington be putting pressure on “irrational“ US consumers to “accept US beef“ too?

  • March 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    There’s a lot of misinformation floating around. Where did you hear that the US is threatening to withhold visa waiver unless beef is resolved? That’s absolutely untrue. There has been no spillover from the trade dispute to other areas such as visa policy or arms sales or anything else. But the Americans are refusing to hold Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks if beef is still an issue. The US argument is ‘how can we enter into new agreements with Taiwan when the Taiwanese don’t live up to their existing promises?”

    I object to letting differences over one commodity become an obstacle to discussion of other issues affecting US companies. But we also must understand why things have reached this stage:

    1. Beef is big business in the US and the beef lobby is politically powerful. Senators and Congressmen from cattle-raising states are in key positions on Capitol Hill, such as Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. A lot of his former staff members are now serving in the Office of the US Trade Representative. You may be right that the US imports some beef from other countries, but it surely exports a lot more than it imports.

    2. After tough negotiations, Korea and Japan agreed a few years ago to accept American beef. If Washington now ignores the restrictions in the Taiwan market, it would leave the Koreans and Japanese feeling like patsies. A lot of press reports have mentioned that the EU does not accept beef with ractopamine, but it didn’t mention that Washington brought the case to the WTO and was allowed to apply punitive tariffs to some European products in retaliation. So it’s not that Taiwan is being picked on.

    3. The anger toward Taiwan in Washington is because Taiwan has promised numerous times to solve the problem — beginning with the Chen Shui-bian administration and continuing under Ma. But the Taiwan government was never willing until now to stand up to the inevitable criticism from the hog farmers and others — and now that it has a proposal on the table, it may not be able to rein in its own KMT legislators to avoid blockage in the legislature.

    4. It’s a false issue. Millions of Americans are eating beef every day in quantities much larger than Taiwanese consume and without any incident. If someone were to design a clinical trial, could they ever find a sample bigger than that?

  • March 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

    This blog entry is definitely the most well-sourced and comprehensive story I’ve read on the ractopamine issue. EXTREMELY EXCELLENT WRITING.

    What’s the stupidest fact that no one talks about? Here it is: the only thing that America’s cruel and disgusting factory farms need to do is to STOP feeding their animals with ractopamine TWO days before they’re cruelly put to death after a lifetime of methane creation. That would eliminate all traces of the residue – a pretty simple solution. That said, I think a total ban on entrails should be enforced.

    Your new blog format is fantastic, and your writing has zoomed in relevance, insight, and research. Good on you, girl! Torch


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