Friday, January 15, 2010

Beef issue tests US-Taiwan relations

On January 5, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed an amendment to the Food Sanitation Act banning the import of “potentially high risk” beef products from areas where mad cow disease has been documented over the past decade. Despite President Ma Ying-jeou’s worries that a ban would strain US-Taiwan ties, the vote was unanimous.

Ruling and opposition party legislators reached a consensus at the end of last December to amend the nation’s Food Sanitation Act, restricting the import of certain US beef products amid widespread concerns about the possibility of contracting mad cow disease. The Ma Administration had warned that passing such a bill could constitute a breach of the US-Taiwan protocol signed last October allowing beef imports, further damaging ties with the US as well as hurting Taiwan’s international credibility.

Under the revised law, “potentially high risk” substances include cattle skulls, brain, eyes, spinal cord, offal, ground beef and other related beef products. The amended law also prohibits beef products from cattle older than 30 months from regions in which mad cow disease was found in the last 10 years from entering the island.

The controversy over US beef arose following the announcement by Taiwan’s Ministry of Health that bone-in US beef, offal and ground beef would be imported based on the newly signed US-Taiwan protocol.

Unexpected opposition at home

When the first case of mad cow disease was confirmed in the US in 2003, Taiwan and many other countries imposed an immediate ban on imported American beef products. In 2005, the Taiwan government under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) negotiated with the US and decided to partially allow beef imports. Since then, Taiwan has only allowed the import of US boneless beef from cattle under 30 months old, produced by certified slaughterhouses without specified risk materials.

After taking office in May 2008, President Ma immediately started talks with the US to further open up Taiwan’s market for American beef products. Based on the South Korean model, the Ministry of Health negotiated with Washington on the matter for about eighteen months. Upon its conclusion, the Ma Administration approved the signing of the protocol on October 23, 2009 to allow the import of bone-in US beef, offal and ground beef.

With the news of the signing, DPP legislators lodged a strong objection and began to amend the Food Sanitation Act to overturn the protocol signed between the executive branch and the US government. Civil rights activists and consumer protection groups also initiated a referendum to reject the beef protocol.

Ma respects lawmakers’ decision

With President Ma’s strategy of “making peace with China, befriending Japan and embracing the US” in place, Taiwan signed twelve agreements with China after his inauguration, but failed to reach any agreement with Washington. In order to make further headway, the Ma administration decided to open up the issue of imported US beef.

Upon hearing of the amendment, President Ma held a press conference hoping that the impact of the Legislature’s action on US-Taiwan ties would be limited to the trade of agricultural products only. He emphasized that the beef protocol is still valid and bone-in beef from cattle under the age of 30 months can still enter Taiwan. The banned parts accounted for less than 2 percent of the tota US-Taiwan beef trade.

President Ma acknowledged that his administration should have tried harder to communicate and get the buy-ins from the Legislative Yuan and the public about the protocol. To calm worries of potential health risks posed by American beef, the Health Ministry has adopted a strict control to test imported offal and ground beef in the last two months. He noted there is no need to further amend the law since the status quo contained enough protection. However, since the Legislative Yuan still insisted on going ahead with the amendment the president decided to respect the Legislature’s position.

Business as usual

Following five years of suspension, the first batch of US bone-in beef will arrived in Taiwan on January 15, and undergo complete inspection within three days.

Overall, Taiwan’s objections over imported US beef has been conveyed via orderly demonstration and legislative action, unlike in Korea, where protests violence have resulted in repeated clashes with riot police.

Despite Washington’s disappointment, it has been decided not to link the beef issue to the arms package to Taiwan, which is said to include UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, the remainder of an ongoing Patriot PAC-3 missile-defense package, an initial design study for diesel submarines, and the second phase of a sophisticated command and control system.

Although Taiwan is the 6th largest US beef export market, according to statistics from the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), beef exports to Taiwan in 2008 totaled only US$128 million. It is just a drop in the bucket in comparison with the amount of US arms exports to Taiwan.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.