A few days ago, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that Taiwan will set safety standards for ractopamine, an additive found in imported lean pork, and begin importing U.S. pork, as well as U.S. beef from cows older than 30 months. While this led some senior county and city officials to insist on adopting a no-ractopamine standard for lean meat, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung stressed that food safety policies should be unified with those of the central government. Moreover, he urged area governments not to hold Taiwan back over small matters such as this. But is food and health safety really a small matter? Is the health of Taiwanese citizens a small matter?
Chen Chi-chung, minister of the Council of Agriculture, pointed out that Taiwan primarily imports its pork from Canada and Spain; U.S. pork accounts for only 1%. However, while only 22% of American pork contains ractopamine, exporting countries such as Canada and Spain do not use ractopamine at all. When Chen visited pig farmers in the Taiwanese city of Taoyuan, he particularly emphasized that Taiwan would never use ractopamine.
He stressed this because he understands that the lean-meat enhancer ractopamine is a “poisonous drug!” On Oct. 11, 2006, the Council of Agriculture prohibited the use of beta-agonists in animals, outlining that “the manufacturing, prescription, import, export, sale or display of beta-agonists, including salbutamol, terbutaline, clenbuterol and ractopamine, used in food-producing animals was prohibited.” Therefore, currently, pig farmers in Taiwan cannot use beta-agonists such as ractopamine. If U.S. pork is imported, and 78% of U.S. pig farmers do not use ractopamine, why go against reason and import the pork with ractopamine, which could be harmful to people’s health? Are the interests and health of consumers a small matter?
In July 2012, the United Nations Codex Alimentarius Commission met about the use of ractopamine. Propelled by an effort from the U.S., the commission voted 69- 67 in favor of approving a Codex standard for ractopamine residue levels. However, as this standard has no legal standing for member countries, countries in the EU, which questioned the small size of the sample group in human testing, as well as the lack of women and ethnic groups, still prohibited the use of ractopamine and adopted a no-ractopamine standard for imports.
The Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan invited Donald M. Broom, professor of animal welfare science in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, to speak to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (the legislative branch of government) and share how the EU promotes both animal welfare and meat safety policies. According to Broom, whether a country is civilized can be determined by the harm its policies have exacted on human health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. Adding ractopamine to pig and cattle feed not only creates stress for the animals but also negatively affects human health. Because consumers in the EU have such great influence, they used public opinion to create change.
Taiwanese eating habits vary greatly from those of Europeans and Americans. For example, we eat the internal organs of animals more frequently, so the risk from ractopamine is greater. In response to media polls on the internet asking whether people would be willing to buy U.S. pork and beef if the government began importing it, nearly 90% of consumers resolutely stated they would not buy or eat U.S. pork or beef, and would only eat such meats from Taiwan. The Consumers’ Foundation also opposes importing U.S. pork and beef. Consumer interests and health is no small matter! Will the government take Taiwanese consumers seriously? Do Taiwanese consumers have the same influence as those in the EU, and can they appeal to public opinion to create change? We will have to wait and see!
The author is the honorary chair of the Consumers’ Foundation and a professor at Chinese Culture University.