Monday, October 26, 2009

Public Health and US Beef

Public Health and US Beef
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
October 26, 2009

The government has lifted its ban on U.S. beef, provoking a public outcry. Amidst accusations that he was "outside the loop," Director of Health Yang Chih-liang even expressed a willingness to step down. But if all the policy decisions were made by the National Security Council, why must Yang Chih-liang bear responsibility? In this tug of war between public health and diplomatic advantage, what exactly was our moral and political calculus?
Most regrettable of all is that during recent negotiations our side failed to stick to its guns. As Yang Chih-liang blurted out, "What can we do? That's the way things are for us." His lament induced a "national malaise." It is true that in negotiations with the United States, we are usually at a disadvantage. That is why Chen administration National Security Council Secretary General Chiou I-jen asked rhetorically, "Whose apron strings are we going to cling to, if not Uncle Sam's?" But the question is: Were the recent negotiations one-sided? Was the United States really too rough with us? Or were we simply too soft? Ma Ying-jeou and Su Chi are on good terms with the United States. But if their administration leaves the impression that Washington is bullying Taipei, isn't it squandering its friendship with the United States? The U.S. executive branch has maintained a consistent negotiating posture. But when Obama replaced Bush, Taipei lost some of its bargaining chips. Has Washington decided it can get away with bullying Taipei? Or have we merely failed to assert ourselves?

Department of Health officials said that some provisions which appear overly generous, are merely instances in which we "allowed the United States to save face." That is ridiculous. What about saving our own face? Washington's representative to Taipei has never denied that his responsibility is to safeguard U.S. interests. Even after leaving office, Stephen M. Young is still attempting to sell the idea of "Let in the beef in the Year of the Ox." If we don't look after Taipei's rights and dignity, who will?

The current tempest over US beef involves three bones of contention. First, too many items been allowed in. In addition to bone-in steaks, many organ meats have been allowed in. These pose a risk to our health. Secondly, the decision-making process is too opaque. In particular, the views of health authorities have not been sufficiently heeded. Decision-making has been dominated by the National Security Council, which is not required to answer to public opinion. Thirdly, the government hasn't made a sincere effort to communicate with the public. It has repeatedly said that "in principle, no imports are allowed," but that "both sides have a private understanding," and used other vague terms to mislead the public.

After a full day of public backlash, Premier Wu Den-yih amended his US beef import policy. He stressed that beef brains, marrow, eyes, skulls, and other high-risk parts would not be allowed in. He revised the Department of Health's previous statement that "in principle, no imports are allowed." He said "If Americans won't eat it, neither will we." This bottom line is probably more acceptable to the public.

The Executive Yuan is locking the barn door after the horse was been stolen. Its current priority is to act as gatekeeper, to prevent unscrupulous businesses from taking advantage of the situation, or using the black hole of customs to smuggle in high-risk foodstuffs. It must establish a more effective management mechanism. It must provide the public with more detailed explanations. For example, it should ensure that all U.S. beef and organ meat imports are consistently labeled. It should ensure that downstream retail and restaurant industry are in compliance, enabling consumers to see clearly what they are buying. It must enable the public to decide for itself whether it wishes to consume U.S. beef and organ meats. It must control the damage caused by its foreign policy blunders, and safeguard against future policy errors.

Government agencies can also set up dedicated web pages. They can track Taiwan import data, including what was imported, how much was imported, and when it was imported. They can track mid-stream and down-stream sales volume and sales destinations. Organ meats used in processed foods are often hard to identify. This way they can be subjected to periodic checks by Consumer Protection Officers, or consumers actively participating in the supervision process. This will reduce the possibility of administrative black holes. Premier Wu wants the Department of Health to establish a "compulsory insurance" system for importers. Actually making the process more transparent, and the information more readily available to the public, will be more helpful than some makeshift insurance policy.

To be fair, much of the public wants U.S. beef imports. Many think the probability of a renewed outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease infections is minuscule. After long deprivation, many gourmets are hungry for US T-bone steaks. This does not mean they are indifferent to their own health. This does not mean the government can disregard public health, or lower its guard. It is rumored we made significant concessions for the sake of the "Taiwan-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement," and to enable ministerial-level officials from the US to visit Taiwan. But using public health as a bargaining chip is unthinkable. The administration has failed to stand behind its policies. If it continues to default on its responsibility, the government's image may take a big hit.

The Ma administration has linked beef imports to foreign policy. But in the end it must respond to the economic concerns of the man in the street. It need not advance any elaborate theories. It merely needs to assure the public that the beef it is eating is safe.

2009.10.26 03:32 am










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