Taiwan’s Resistance to US Imports Explained

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Jason Wu is a student at Tufts University

Over the past 4 months, Taiwan has found itself trapped in a renewed heated debate over President Tsai Ing-wen’s decision on August 28 to ease import restrictions on US beef and pork products [1]. This controversial new trade policy was met by fierce resistance and rebuke from the Taiwanese public, opposition parties, and even members within Tsai’s own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), bringing more than 30,000 protesters [2] in front of the Presidential Palace calling for the reversal of such a decision. The Legislative Yuan (parliament) has also descended into chaos as opposition parties attempted to block parliamentary proceedings on the trade policy adjustment. According to local Taiwanese poll figures, nearly 70% people are against lifting restrictions on US meat imports [11].  

The epicenter of contention for the import relaxation on US beef and pork lies in the fact that these meat products contain an animal feed additive called ractopamine hydrochloride. Ractopamine is a drug that boosts protein synthesis, which helps increase animal weight and promote muscle leanness by reducing fat content [3][5]. While the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had officially approved the use of ractopamine for pork in 1999 and cattle in 2003 (and is widely used among American meat manufacturers for profit reasons) [4][8], more than 160 countries around the world — including the European Union states, Russia, and China etc. — currently ban the drug due to concerns over its health risks.

Ractopamine is pharmacologically categorized as a beta-adrenergic agonist drug with stimulant physiological effects [6]. Research has shown that long-term use of such type of drugs can cause tachycardia (abnormal rapid heart rate), dilatation of blood vessels, muscle tremor, nervousness, impaired metabolism and other adverse effects [6][7]. In addition, ractopamine residues have been found and linked to the widespread cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) between 2003 and 2006 [9], prompting countries such as China, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan [13] to effectively ban beef imports from the United States. 

In 2012, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) voted (69 for, 67 against, 7 abstentions) and adopted a maximum residue limit (MRL) of 0.01 mg/kg [6] for acceptable ractopamine levels in cattle and pig muscle cuts [6][12]. With the JECFA recommended standard and other scientific evaluations conducted by American, Japanese, and Canadian government authorities [4], the United States bolstered up the argument that “meat from animals fed ractopamine is safe for human consumption.” [4] In spite of the American efforts to sway countries into allowing US ractopamine-fed meat products, the European Union, China, and Russia remain adamant about zero-tolerance policies.

The European Food Safety Authority, citing its 2009 safety evaluation of ractopamine used in animal feed [14], questions the studies used for the adoption of the JECFA MRL and argues that those studies are flawed and insufficient [14]. Chinese authorities ban ractopamine-fed pork based on the fact that high levels of ractopamine residues can be found in pig organs, which is part of the traditional Chinese diet [15]. Russia shares the EU’s concern and argues that “the acceptable daily intake of ractopamine was insufficiently substantiated and could not be used to establish MRLs for ractopamine in meat and organ meant.” [6] Apprehension towards US ractopamine-fed meat products also remains prevalent among the Taiwanese public.                 

In response to public skepticisms, the Tsai’s administration has rolled out many placatory measures. The most palpable of all is the administration’s aggressive efforts to inculcate the public with the notion that ractopamine is safe for consumption within JECFA adopted MRL guidelines. New domestic research studies on ractopamine’s effect and reports on frequently asked questions have been circulated on governmental websites [17][16]. The Executive Yuan Premier, Su Tseng-chang, has also publicly assured that the government will implement more detailed labeling regulations (adding 45 additional customs clearance codes) and more stringent inspection procedures [18].     

The public and many critics remain unsatisfied, raising concerns about the complications that come with the proposed labeling system. Examples include critics arguing that for people who frequent street vendors, it is extremely difficult to factually identify and distinguish domestic meat from imported ones. Others argue that because pork make up a big part of the Taiwanese diet [19], the chances of people unwittingly eating ractopamine-fed meat will inevitably increase.          

The health and logistical questions about importing ractopamine-fed meat are valid and serious concerns. However, amid the public discontent, important considerations regarding Taiwan’s national interests and strategic alignment are overlooked. Against the backdrop of worsening US-China relations, cross-strait relations, and a thriving Taiwan-US partnership, aligning itself closer with the United States is critical for Taiwan’s raison d’état. The benefits of a concession on US beef and pork imports come both economically and politically. 

The debate on whether or not to lift restrictions on US ractopamine-fed beef and pork is not a new one. In fact, discussions on the issue have already been taking place since the early 2000s during President Chen Shui-bian’s administration. In 2007, President Chen’s proposal to lift bans on ractopamine faced strong pushback and was rescinded. Even during the succeeding Ma Ying-jeou presidency, Taiwan only scrapped its zero-tolerance policy for US ractopamine-fed beef with conditions, but not for pork (it was struck from the deal due to overwhelming opposition). Eventually, only certain muscle cuts of American cows under 30 months of age were cleared for importation starting in 2012.      

Throughout the political discourse, the issue of ractopamine beef and pork remained closely linked to a potential bilateral trade agreement (BTA) with the United States. The primary channel for dialogue on trade between Taiwan and the United States is the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (hereafter TIFA), which holds annual meetings for delegations from the United States Trade Representative (hereafter USTR) and the Taiwanese authorities. However, over the years, TIFA meetings have been intermittently suspended — something that many US officials explicitly and implicitly point to as a direct consequence of Taiwan’s reluctance to lift ractopamine-fed beef and pork products [20][21][22][25] (the USTR listed Taiwan’s blockade of ractopamine administered meat products as an outstanding nontariff barrier to trade) [23]. The Tsai administration has also indicated that it views the relaxation on ractopamine as a quid pro quo for a trade deal with the United States [24]. It seems, therefore, that the resumption of TIFA meetings and the signing of a potential trade agreement is contingent on Taiwan’s policies towards American ractopamine-fed meat products.   

A BTA with the United States is highly beneficial for Taiwan economically. The United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, accounting for 13.2% of Taiwan’s total trade [26]. A BTA with the United States will likely increase Taiwan’s existing $20.1 billion trade surplus [26] while further vitalizing Taiwan’s semiconductor industry — a key component of US’s shift in strategy to restructure and decouple its supply chains from China [27][28] as a result of deteriorating US-China relations. More importantly, Taiwan desperately needs a BTA as it is further ostracized by Beijing in the newest trading bloc Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — the largest FTA agreement in history, interlinking 30% of the world’s people and output [29]. Furthermore, Taiwan has yet to become a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). As a result, Taiwan is set to potentially be left out on $428 billion worth of trade from RCEP [30], on top losing competitiveness amid tighter relations among other Asian states. A BTA with the United States can help offset some of the adverse impacts from Taiwan’s isolation.          

A potential BTA on top of concessions to the US on ractopamine-fed meat products will also serve Taiwan’s interests politically. The Taiwan-US relations is at an all-time high after the United States has passed many favorable legislations such as the Taiwan Travel Act (2018) and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act (2019). In addition, Taiwan has enjoyed historic level arm sales — including F-16V fighter jets, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones — and high-level visits by US cabinet members in spite of warnings from Beijing, which were previously forbidden since 1979. These are all evidences that the Taiwan-US relationship is arguably in its strongest position in decades. China’s erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and its ramped-up military activities near Taiwanese waters make it incandescently clear that the threat to Taiwan’s democracy and its way of life comes from Beijing, not Washington. Tsai’s decision to import US ractopamine meat products and a potential BTA will propel Taipei even closer to Washington, strengthening Taiwan’s trade and political relations with the United States and advancing Taiwan’s own national security interests. These measures should be highly encouraged given that under the current heightened rivalry between the United States and China, any pro-Taiwan policies will be welcomed by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington as steps to affirming its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and a counteract against Beijing’s influences. 

With a new administration incoming, it should still be expected that the strong Taiwan-US relations will continue. But prospects on how the Biden administration will deliver its support for Taiwan remain unclear. It is possible that the Biden administration will want to repair relations with China before proceeding anything with Taiwan. This has been a view shared by the United States Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, who was concerned that initiating a deal with Taiwan will upset trade negotiations with China. Nonetheless, the decision to lift restrictions on US beef and pork is a major step towards stronger Taiwan-US relations by clearing a major obstacle. The Tsai government needs to take full advantage of the shift in United States foreign policy strategy and the changing geopolitical landscape so Taiwan’s national interests can be served.  

Citations

[1] https://www.president.gov.tw/News/25537

[2] https://news.tvbs.com.tw/politics/1420935

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/letters-to-the-editor/this-pork-additive-is-harmful-to-pigs–and-humans/2020/12/03/ae7d2d5c-332f-11eb-9699-00d311f13d2d_story.html

[4] https://www.ait.org.tw/the-facts-about-u-s-beef-and-ractopamine/

[5] https://www.randoxfood.com/ractopamine-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-banned-in-over-160-countries/

[6] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277264017_HEALTH_RISK_ASSESSMENT_OF_EXPOSURE_TO_RACTOPAMINE_THROUGH_CONSUMPTION_OF_MEAT_PRODUCTS

[7] https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(02)01511-7/fulltext

[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/ractopamine

[9] https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=85&ContentID=P01444

[10] https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/ractopamine_factsheet_02211.pdf

[11] https://www.storm.mg/article/3232216

[12] http://www.fao.org/tempref/codex/Meetings/CCRVDF/ccrvdf20/rv20_02e.pdf

[13] https://gazette.nat.gov.tw/EG_FileManager/eguploadpub/eg012193/ch07/type1/gov62/num16/Eg.htm

[14] https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/codex_ccrdvf_18_agenda_item2-efsa_en.pdf

[15] https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/china-pork-beef-ban-1.5190574

[16] https://www.coa.gov.tw/theme_list.php?theme=policy_qa&sub_theme=

[17] https://www.fda.gov.tw/TC/siteList.aspx?sid=225

[18] https://english.president.gov.tw/NEWS/6033

[19] https://musou.watchout.tw/read/PfBtRXR6UY1WFfOXjwML

[20] https://www.ait.org.tw/united-states-taiwan-trade-investment-framework-agreement-tifa-council-meeting/

[21] https://web.archive.org/web/20120503231229/http://www.libertytimes.com.tw/2012/new/jan/31/today-fo1.htm

[22] https://topics.amcham.com.tw/2020/05/ustr-agenda/

[23] https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2020_National_Trade_Estimate_Report.pdf

[24] https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4057585

[25] https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2020/07/28/2003740664

[26] https://www.trade.gov/knowledge-product/taiwan-market-overview#:~:text=China%20is%20Taiwan’s%20largest%20trading,Hong%20Kong%20(6.7%20percent).

[27] https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/US_TW_Trade_Blumenthal_Mazza_P2049_021419.pdf

[28] https://www.csis.org/analysis/now-right-time-trade-agreement-taiwan

[29] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/11/16/rcep-a-new-trade-agreement-that-will-shape-global-economics-and-politics/

[30] https://www.piie.com/publications/working-papers/east-asia-decouples-united-states-trade-war-covid-19-and-east-asias-new