For five years now, Taiwan has been unable to resolve the controversy over whether to allow imports of US beef containing the feed additive ractopamine.
This May, the Legislative Yuan had been scheduled to discuss a proposed amendment that would have allowed for the import of ractopamine-fed beef. But even though the ruling Kuomintang was determined to push the bill through, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party was just as determined to thwart the KMT’s plans, and after using every means available it was able to stop the bill from being discussed at all.
Then on July 5 the UN Codex Alimentarius Commission voted that ractopamine concentration levels of up to 10 parts per billion would henceforth be allowed. With the support of the Codex behind it, the Legislature revisited the bill and on July 25 it passed the proposed amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation.
But passage of the bill does not mean that the controversy has ended. On the contrary, two new questions now come to the fore: how to allay the public’s fear over ractopamine, and how to get the most out of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks between Taiwan and the US
Passage of the amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation means that a legal procedure is now in place that allows for the importing of US beef containing feed additives. What it does not mean is that ractopamine concentration levels of 10 ppb are completely safe.
Indeed, shortly after the Codex passed its resolution, Switzerland vowed to form a new international food safety commission by joining forces with other nations and territories that were opposed to lifting the ban on ractopamine – places such as the European Union, mainland China and Russia.
Thus even though the Executive Yuan now has legal cover to permit imports of American beef into Taiwan, it still has to respond to continued doubts among the public and to calls for closer monitoring of beef imports. In other words, the executive branch needs to work hard to carry out measures that can put the public at ease; it must also devise an adequate inspection mechanism.
In addition, now that the government has tied the question of US beef together with a host of other issues – with TIFA, and also a possible free trade agreement between Taiwan and the US, as well as the entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership – it must deliver results and show that passage of the amendment can bring trade benefits as well.
The amendment states that restaurants and beef sellers must indicate the provenance of the beef that they sell. The problem with this requirement is that the public is more concerned with whether its beef contains ractopamine, not where it is from.
After the Codex resolution, every country in the world, including Taiwan, is legally entitled to add certain levels of ractopamine to its food. Thus it is no longer possible to know whether beef contains ractopamine based on its country of origin.
ROC President Ma Ying-jeou recently told Chen Man-li, chairwoman of the Homemakers United Foundation, that it would not be possible to indicate ractopamine concentration levels on every package of beef sold. Indeed, the US would not agree to such a move, and in any case it could never be carried out in practice, just as it is not possible to test for residual pesticide levels on all vegetables.
However, a distinction has been made between organic and nonorganic vegetables. The government should encourage beef sellers to similarly label their products as being “organic” or “all natural” – provided, of course, that they can show that no ractopamine was used on their cattle. In this way the right and desire of the public to choose what type of food it consumes can be adequately addressed.
As to TIFA talks, Taiwan hopes they can be linked with an FTA that Taiwan would like to sign with the US, and also with entry into the international TPP. But the US has not been thinking along these lines at all.
It is not easy discussing the three issues together; for even though they share a common goal of promoting international trade and investment, the three involve completely different processes.
With the envisioned FTA, bilateral discussions and the give-and-take of trade negotiations can be expected. The TPP, by contrast, involves many different nations; there is a very high bar for entry and there is no room at all for ambiguity.
The TIFA talks, by contrast, allow discussions on various topics to proceed. The TIFA discussions have no specific goals in mind, and can be suspended or continued at will. In a way, TIFA talks are like playing with blocks: No one can predict what shape the blocks will finally assume.
But now that the US has made the beef issue a precondition for further talks, Taiwan should continue with TIFA discussions; it should try to make the best of the situation by profiting from them as much as possible. If Taiwan takes a pragmatic approach to the matter, the US is likely to take a pragmatic approach as well.
Thus far four discussion topics have been identified for the TIFA talks: tariff cooperation, electronic commerce, standards recognition and an investment protection agreement. But for Taiwan the biggest problem at the moment is that US businesses have continually accused Taiwan companies of intellectual property rights violations, so that Taiwan goods are often detained at customs and cannot be sold in the US This is an urgent issue that needs to be resolved soon.
One final point: Many commentators seem to think that passage of the amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation is a demonstration of Taiwan’s commitment to trade liberalisation. This is as if to say that now that the beef issue has been resolved, Taiwan can begin FTA and TPP talks in earnest.
But the degree of Taiwan’s trade liberalisation depends not just on the beef issue, but also on the readiness of the nation’s agriculture sector. After the proposed trade agreements are concluded, which parts of the farming sector will need help transitioning to a different line of work? How many farmers will need government subsidies? How much revenue will have to be set aside to help displaced farmers? If these questions cannot be answered, all talk of trade liberalisation is just idle boasting.