Referendum on US Beef: Neither Necessary Nor Urgent
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 8, 2010
The Legislative Yuan amended the Act Governing Food Sanitation on its third reading, banning the importation of most US beef products apart from bone-in beef. Yesterday the Executive Yuan Referendum Committee gave its preliminary approval to a US Beef Referendum proposed by the Consumers' Foundation. The Consumers' Foundation then launched its second phase signature drive. This is the first time a referendum has been initiated by private individuals since the referendum process was instituted. It deserves attention. But it may also lead to all sorts of after-effects.
From a practical perspective, it was not easy for the Consumers' Foundation to collect 129,000 signatures and cross the first stage threshold in such a short time. Past referendum drives were initiated by political parties with considerable organizational strength. The "defensive referendum" or "referendum on United Nations membership" were all politically-oriented, Partisan political considerations far outweighed public welfare considerations. The Consumers' Foundation held an internal debate. Did it want political parties to participate? To ensure that the US Beef Referendum remained purely a public welfare issue, and did not degenerate into a partisan political issue, the Consumers' Foundation rejected political party involvement. It collected 129,000 signatures, proving that people power had arrived, and that the Republic of China was a mature democratic society.
But it is difficult to imagine crossing the second phase threshold of 860,000 signatures without organized assistance. Even if the Consumers' Foundation refuses to change its mind and declines political party intervention, political parties or political groups are likely to play an important role in the second stage signature drive, if only out of political necessity. The signature drive will probably take six months. If the review passes without any hiccups, the referendum will be held around the same time as the municipal elections for five major metropolises. The Consumers' Foundation may reject intervention by political parties and political groups. But political parties or political groups will use the U.S. Beef Referendum as a political tool in the general election. The public referendum is a public welfare issue. It is a symbol of the maturity of the Republic of China's democratic society. But it would inevitably fall victim to electioneering. The result would be less room for the rational discussion of U.S. beef imports.
The Consumers' Foundation US Beef Referendum reads: "We demand that the Department of Health reinitiate talks with the United States on its November 2009 relaxing of restrictions on the importation of bone-in beef, ground beef, beef organ meats, beef bone marrow less than 30 months old." If we examine the text of the referendum, we find that its demands are already covered in the provisions of the Legislative Yuan's amended Act Governing Food Sanitation. The act stipulates that any questionable beef parts are prohibited and may not be imported. The only beef part it allowed in was bone-in beef. There is no controversy over imports. Even assuming one has objections, the legislature has all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles it can invoke to prevent the meat industry from importing unsafe products. No company has yet to apply for an import permit. Even if some may wish to do so in the future, the number is apparently quite limited.
Furthermore, the content of the amended domestic law is already in conflict with the treaty signed by Taipei and Washington. The United States has issued a strongly-worded statement. Government agencies must immediately engage in diplomatic fence-mending. More importantly, relevant consultations must be restarted. Agencies concerned with economics, trade, and national security must immediately resume negotiations. The United States may be angry and unwilling to re-open negotiations at the moment. But the agreement stipulates that negotiations must be restarted every three months. In other words, soon after the Consumers' Foundation begins its second phase signature drive, government agencies will have restarted negotiations. Since the value of the United States beef products banned accounts for an insignificant proportion of the United States' interests, there is no reason to delay renegotiations. Taipei and Washington are likely to reach a new agreement even before the second phase signature drive is complete. Why then is it necessary to hold a referendum?
In more concrete terms, suppose the second stage signature drive succeeds. A referendum is held. According to the referendum law, it must be approved by over half the citizens of the nation. Achieving such a goal is "Mission Impossible." It is far more likely that the referendum will be rejected. In the event it is rejected, does that mean we must open the doors wide to US beef imports?
The US Beef Imports Referendum is a public welfare issue. But this particular public welfare issue is highly complex, because it involves negotiations between two governments. The United States vehemently objects to the Act Governing Food Sanitation. It has openly accused Taipei of bad faith. Once this becomes a precedent, coupled with a referendum, it will be seriously undermine Taipei's foreign negotiation and consultation position. It will seriously undermine Taipei's international image. Consumer awareness on Taiwan is increasing. Market mechanisms are highly evolved. As early as November last year, when Taipei and Washington signed the agreement, the public raised a hue and cry. Meat industry leaders even launched their own initiatives to reject US beef imports. Stores even designed labels clearly specifying that they did not stock US beef. Or else they notified consumers that they stocked only Australian beef or New Zealand beef. When consumers use their own judgment, and make their own decisions, the market will naturally force industry to play catch up. After all, who wants to lose money?
This is a vital public health and public welfare issue. The government can issue decrees. Government agencies can track consumer behavior. Solutions are available. They can be found even before the referendum is held. The US Beef Referendum is neither necessary nor urgent. Members of the public indignant over the U.S. beef issue should reflect upon the issue with cool heads.