Thursday, March 8, 2012

Speaking Freely About US Beef Imports

Speaking Freely About US Beef Imports
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
March 8, 2012

Summary: One can stop smoking. But one cannot prevent the sale of cigarettes. We cannot stop the sale of U.S. beef imports containing Clenbuterol and Ractopamine. But we can decide whether we eat them. This is how matters stand in over 160 countries around the world. The public on Taiwan must understand how to respond to both scientific evidence and diplomatic pressure. We need only shine some light on the issue.

Full Text below:

On March 3, Premier Sean Chen announced a "three noes" policy on U.S. beef imports: no commitments, no timetables, no preconceptions. On the evening of March 5, the Executive Yuan announced that US beef could be imported to Taiwan, on four conditions: safety permits, separation of beef and pork, mandatory labeling, and no organ meats.

The U.S. beef imports controversy involves two major issues. First, scientific evidence. Second, diplomatic pressure. Rational policy debate on Taiwan is often difficult. Neither side is willing to consider the pros and cons of the issue. The U.S. beef imports controversy is a Gordian Knot. Those stubbornly opposed to U.S. beef imports are unwilling to consider the scientific evidence. Meanwhile the Ma administration denies feeling any diplomatic pressure.

In fact, the Ma administration has long been aware of both the scientific evidence and the diplomatic pressure. But it feigned ignorance and proclaimed its "three noes" posture. The Ma administration hoped that open and democratic debate would provide it with the public support it sought. As expected, open debate merely enabled those opposed to US beef imports to swiftly gain the upper hand and monopolize media coverage. It even had a chilling effect on public expression. Intense debate failed to produce greater clarity. On the contrary, it precipitated greater confrontation. The Ma administration has lost its chance to enjoy fair winds and following seas. It now finds itself sailing against the wind and swimming against the tide.

First take the scientific arguments. The issue has already been intensely debated. On March 4th, President Ma cited conclusions reached by experts on US beef imports after they met for the third time: "There is no scientific evidence that the consumption of meat containing the feed additive ractopamine is harmful to human beings." Sticklers for precision may want to add the condition, "so far." That would be more accurate. Nevertheless, this is the currently available scientific evidence. Dissenters may harbor doubts. But they cannot cite any scientific evidence to the contrary. As Yang Chi-liang opined, "If President Ma rams his policy through, he will have to bear the political consequences." But Yang also opined that hundreds of millions of Americans have been eating US beef products for the past decade. That amounts to the most comprehensive experiment using human subjects one could ever imagine. Among the nations of the world, only the 27 nations of the EU, and the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have banned ractopamine treated beef. Others, including Japan and South Korea, allow importation, either conditionally or unconditionally. This shows scientific support for ractopamine treated beef. Those dead set against the use of ractopamine in beef can stress their concerns. But they must still cite scientific arguments in response to scientific arguments.

Take diplomatic pressure. The Ma administration initially denied that Washington had linked U.S. beef imports to diplomatic relations between Taipei and Washington. It denied any link to TIFA and TPP. It denied any link to US Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez's cancellation of his visit to Taiwan. It said it had made "no commitment" to Washington. It was wary of charges of "trading sovereignty for US beef." But none of these charges were true. The Ma administration did attempt a cover-up. The public did feel the Ma administration was putting on an act, was being opaque, and had lost important leverage. Sure enough, at the last minute President Ma admitted that "On condition that our national health remains unharmed, domestic industry, trade, diplomacy and other factors must be considered." He also admitted through various channels that "diplomatic pressure" had increased.

If our government permits the importation of US containing safe amounts of ractopamine, the European Union and Mainland China will be the only governments in the world still prohibiting them. The U.S. is unable to exert pressure on the EU unrelated to the scientific evidence. Beijing is also able to resist any pressures Washington might bring to bear. Tokyo and Seoul have already made concessions. Taipei wants TIFA, TPP, visa-free treatment, and extradition agreements. These cards are all in Washington's hands. Taipei is in no position to resist.

The real key to U.S. beef imports is social psychology, industry interests, and Taiwan's economic liberalization. Take social psychology, Politically speaking it is difficult to say what is "humiliating." After all, the Chen Shui-bian government also promised to permit U.S. beef imports. Tokyo and Seoul have done likewise. Take food safety. Mandatory labeling showing the country of origin is non-negotiable, This will allow anyone who with doubts about the safety of US beef to boycott it. Another possiblity is to label U.S. beef as "containing Ractopamine" and "not containing Ractopamine," and allow consumers to choose.

Take industry interests. The government should keep beef and pork separate. This will protect pig farmers. Cattle ranchers are no longer protected. The beef industry is defunct, and the pork industry is on life support. The government hopes to hold the line in areas where scienfific evidence is not an issue. The United States does not want to overplay its hand. It wants to avoid provoking even greater public anger.

Take Taiwan's economic liberalization, If our refusal to allow U.S. beef imports delays visa-free access, extradition, TIFA, and TPP, then we are being penny wise and pound foolish. For Washington to delay closer Taipei/Washington relations over US beef imports would be disproportionate. We hope that once the dust settles, Taipei and Washington can accelerate the implementation of bilateral projects, This will help integrate Taiwan into the international community, This would be in Taipei and Washington's interest alike.

One can stop smoking. But one cannot prevent the sale of cigarettes. We cannot stop the sale of U.S. beef imports containing Clenbuterol and Ractopamine. But we can decide whether we eat them. This is how matters stand in over 160 countries around the world. The public on Taiwan must understand how to respond to both scientific evidence and diplomatic pressure. We need only shine some light on the issue.

2012.03.08 01:48 am











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