Taiwan's Beef Over US Meat

Taipei’s relations with Washington have been complicated for years over the supposed dangers of US meat imports. First, it was bovine spongiform encephalopathy—mad cow disease—then it was the lean meat-enhancer ractopamine, which is banned in many countries but not the US, that led to import restrictions.

Although US beef has never been a major part of bilateral trade – in 2009 it was just US$114 million or around 0.5 percent of annual US exports to the island -- the Americans pressured Taipei with suspension of bilateral talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and also made it clear that Taiwanese plans to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral free trade agreement (FTA) currently promoted by the Obama Administration, are not going anywhere until the beef issue is settled.

Today, however, Washington's push for a full opening for US beef is gaining momentum. That is because US President Barrack Obama helped his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou get re-elected in mid-January. Since Obama needs the support of the American meat industry for his own re-election bid, no time has been wasted in reminding Ma that it's payback time.

It is widely believed that the Obama Administration dug deep into its bag of tricks to ensure Ma’s victory. Fearing that a win by the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would complicate Sino-US relations, Washington allegedly endorsed Ma via a sudden spike in visits by high-ranking US officials to Taipei and the island's timely listing as a candidate for the US's visa-waiver program, among other measures.

But there is no such thing as a free lunch. While Ma and his Kuomintang confederates were still celebrating the victory, Raymond Burghardt, the US-based chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy, flew into Taipei for private talks with Ma.

Once again, beef was at the top of the agenda. A continuation of the pre-election flattery did not happen.

“Beef is one step towards Taiwan having a broader and more liberal overall trade posture. [...]Taiwan needs to have better relations with the Asia-Pacific region, beyond China,” Burghardt told the press.

With Ma heavily under fire domestically for having made the island overly reliant on China, the Taiwanese president didn’t appreciate Washington's envoy’s remarks.

After mad cow disease was detected in the US, Taiwan, joining a global trend, banned US beef imports in December 2003. Rules were relaxed in 2006 to allow imports of boneless beef, and in 2009 an opening to American beef on the bone, organs and minced beef followed.

However, Ma, well aware that protests over the same issue in South Korea had almost brought down the government of President Lee Myung Bak, eventually overturned the decision to allow imports.

Last year, the Taiwanese government pulled US meat with the growth drug ractopamine. The drug, which is fed to pigs and other animals almost until slaughter in order to make them lean and boost their growth, is banned in the EU and China but is considered safe by the US, Canada and Australia, among other countries.

What turned off the Americans in particular were obvious demonstrations of double standards. US officials complained that the Ma administration's ordering of the high-profile removal of US beef from supermarkets in early 2011 created a misperception of an immediate risk to public health, and that when locally produced pork tested positive for ractopamine, authorities held no press conferences, nor were the tests' findings mentioned on government Web sites. Nor were reporters led by zealous officials through the local pig farms at the center of the scandal.

Other incidents proved that when dealing with self-made food scandals, the Taiwanese government tends to be a lot more forgiving. In late-May last year, it was discovered that toxic plasticizers had been added to food products on a massive scale for decades, potentially affecting the health of millions. In the aftermath, no officials of noteworthy rank were forced to shoulder responsibility, and also when the very ractopamine that led to the high-profile import stop for US beef was found in products for lunchboxes prepared for 200,000 elementary schoolchildren in New Taipei City, the case was forgotten very soon after.

Although Kuomintang officials have obviously been wracking their brains to seek a solution, the atmosphere is hardly optimistic.

“The issue hasn't got any easier to resolve because Ma has been reelected. It locks the heads of those responsible for Taiwan's external relations and strategic vision with a parochially-minded opposition,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council.

“No doubt President Ma is keen to have the issue resolved but the Council of Agriculture, the farmers and his own party are all against speedy resolution; indeed, against any resolution at all.”

Positioned in the middle of the struggle between government agencies and other players is the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Ministry is anxious to reopen talks on the trade and investment agreement as it crucially important to Taiwan's exporters. Rival South Korea has signed free trade agreements with the EU and US, but the Department of Health as well as the Council of Agriculture are dragging their feet. The COA previously said it cannot do anything before the Codex Alimentarius Commission – a body established by the United Nations and World Health Organization for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety– decided on whether an internationally accepted set of Maximum Residue Level standards for ractopamine will be set. If that is the case, the COA is to give the nod because World Trade Organization rules would force Taiwan as a member to do so. As it latest move, the COA proposed allowing the drug in imported beef but not in imported pork or allowing ractopamine in imports, while continuing to prohibit local farmers from using it.

Helena Bottemiller, Washington correspondent for Food Safety News, explained why this is unlikely.

“July is when Codex meets again. It appears the EU and China will still oppose it, and there are other countries that voted with them," she said. "An MRL could be adopted over China and the EU's objections, but because the EU has 27 votes, it's an important voting bloc.”

Ractopamine is much more dangerous than widely claimed, according to a recent report by Bottemiller which was commissioned by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The report suggests it has sickened or killed more animals than any other livestock drug on the US market.. Safety studies at the heart of the current trade dispute were conducted by the drug-maker Elanco itself, she said, and apart from mice, rats, monkeys and dogs, only six healthy young men were tested.

“One was removed because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally”, Bottemiller said.

John F Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, predicted the recent US push would harm Ma anyway as Taiwan's opposition can easily use studies cited by Bottemiller to gain public support.

“The issue can either be used to scare people, or as an excuse to stop the importation of American beef so as to help local beef producers, or both. In Taiwan's case it is the former.” Copper said. “Attacks over the matter will make it appear as if the government does not care about public health.”

Since unemployment is Washington's biggest voter concern, the Obama administration wants to make people believe it is doing everything possible to create jobs, Copper said. Agriculture is a big lobby in the US and rural Americans have a bigger vote because redistricting – the drawing of US electoral district boundaries in response to population changes – is notoriously behind in taking into consideration people moving to the cities, he added.

“Although Ma would have been elected without the US, it is clear that Obama helped Ma win re-election. The Obama administration feels that there needs to be a quid pro quo for the help, and that means Taiwan helping Obama get re-elected.”

Needless to say, the DPP isn't amused about what it claims was undue US interference in Taiwan's democratic elections, let alone Obama and Ma helping one another at DPP's expense. In what obviously has been a grudging snub against the Obama Administration, Ma's main challenger in the presidential race, the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen, was initially scheduled to meet AIT Chairman Burghardt on his visit to Taipei but later cancelled the appointment without real explanation.

Auguring particularly badly for Obama's initiative to present American voters a breakthrough on US beef exports to Taiwan in a timely manner, the DPP seemingly cannot wait to settle the score.

“I heard from a good source that the DPP will try to block legislature from approving US beef imports to get even with the US for helping Ma,” Copper said.