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.