Thursday, March 08, 2012

Beef, Avian Flu: Vegetarianism, here I come

One wonders just what kind of pharmacopoeia went into creating this cornucopia of agricultural news this week. It's normal to add that you'd like a dose of whatever they are smoking, but I think I'll take a pass on that, thanks. It's obviously some kind of depressant....

I hardly know what to write, because this topic is like the poster child for the old saw that the more trivial the issue, the more bitter the fighting. Background first.....
The background is that the two governments signed a protocol in October 2009 lifting most of the remaining restrictions on U.S. beef products that Taiwan had put in place following the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in 2003. Just two months later, however, the Taiwan legislature – in which Ma’s Kuomintang controlled some three-quarters of the seats – enacted a law that reversed some of those very provisions. Despite resentment at what it regarded as Taiwan’s reneging on the protocol, the U.S. government by early 2011 was willing to start preparations to resume TIFA talks. Then another obstacle arose when Taiwan rejected some shipments of beef found to contain traces of the leanness-enhancing feed additive ractopamine. Though ractopamine, widely used by American ranchers, had long been a banned substance in Taiwan, inspectors had not previously tested for its presence. Random inspections, and the rejection of many shipments, have continued over the past year, and the uncertainty has caused some big buyers such as Costco to switch to other sources of supply.
As the TT noted in its review of a Wikileaks cable:
Taiwan did not allow US bone-in beef — a ban which had been in place since 2003 when the country outlawed all US beef imports shortly after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered — until a Ma administration protocol with the US in October 2009.

That protocol did not resolve the dispute after the legislature amended the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) to ban imports of beef offal and ground beef and the government began testing US beef for ractopamine in January, both hindering the resumption of bilateral talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which had been suspended since 2007 because of the controversy.
Lessee... the beef issue is really two issues. First, it was Mad Cow disease. In 2003 the Chen Administration banned US beef imports over the discovery of a case of Mad Cow in the US. The restrictions were not lifted until 2009, and the legislature then reinstated them. Then in 2011 Taiwan began testing beef imports for ractopamine and the rest was misery....

It was actually only in 2006 the government banned ractopamine:
Following the decision, Taiwan, which prohibits the use of ractopamine, said that its ban, which was introduced in 2006, would remain in place.

“We have no plan to change our zero-tolerance policy against the use of ractopamine in meat products,” Minister Without Portfolio Yiin Chii-ming (尹啟銘) said by telephone.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in March charged Yiin with the task of reopening negotiations with the US under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) platform after the US unexpectedly put a hold on talks originally scheduled to resume in late January over the ractopamine issue.

The TIFA talks, which started in 1994, have been suspended since 2007, in response to Taiwan banning imports of US beef over fears of mad cow disease.
Beef might be a small thing in the overall US-Taiwan trade picture but for US producers Taiwan was an important market:
Taiwan purchased $128 million in beef products from the United States in 2008. In 2002 -- the last full year that the banned beef items were sold on the island -- they constituted about 13 percent of total U.S. beef imports.
The ractopamine ban was introduced in 2006 but no testing was done until years later. This means -- let's complete this circle -- that Taiwanese must have been eating ractopamine in US pork, for which it was introduced under the name Paylean in 2000, for years. Indeed...
After a 37 percent drop in 2007, U.S. pork (including variety meat) exports to Taiwan bounced back in 2008 with a 98 percent volume increase to 31,701 metric tons and a 115 percent rise in value to $52.9 million. The upward trend continued in 2009.
It did not reach US cattle until 2003, apparently after the Chen Administration ban went into effect (article on development of ractopamine). But US beef was entering the country in various guises between 2006 and 2011...

Ok, background done, now once again we should note that...

....the air is polluted, the veggies are coated with chemicals, the rivers are stinking open sewers, the pork is a testing ground for antibiotics, the roadways operate in Death Race 2000 mode, and the Taiwanese are as prone to eat junk food as any other people. But let the US want to bring in beef with traces of ractopamine....

The government this week pushed for a conditional lifting of the ban, triggering protests:
Sixteen civic groups took to the streets of Taipei yesterday to demand the resignation of Premier Sean Chen over the Cabinet’s decision to push for a conditional lifting of a ban on imports of US beef containing a controversial feed additive.
This led to the usual tussle between the KMT and the DPP. The latter is using the beef issue to bash the KMT. Ractopamine was banned under the DPP but no steps were taken to actually test for it (laws are made to be seen, not heard, in Taiwan). The danger for the pan-Greens should be obvious -- from the US perspective the KMT government has adopted the "reasonable" position and the DPP the "intransigent" position. A DPP legislator accused the KMT of making a political deal with the US on the issue in exchange for US support in the elections (but given the DPP position on this how could the US have dealt with that party? D'oh.) However, supporters of lifting the ban argue that it hurts Taiwan in its attempt to join the US-led TPP "free trade" initiative as well as in the talks on the Taiwan-US trade framework, TIFA, which, like fusion energy and a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl victory, is always just a few years away. Recall that the TIFA talks were suspended in 2007 and the US did blame the beef issue when it suspended them.

One of the keys to understanding the passionate silliness of the Taiwanese is identified in this TT article from the other day:
Throwing pieces of raw beef on signs with illustrations of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) dressed as Uncle Sam, with the words: “I want you to eat US beef” written on them, the protesters said that the administration was neglecting the public’s health, while humiliating the nation and forfeiting its sovereignty.
Because Taiwan's sovereignty is always contested and always perceived as threatened, issues like this one that thrust themselves into that netherworld where the ROC virtual state meets the reality of global non-recognition are blown totally out of proportion. When it comes to sovereignty, the Taiwanese are like a cripple who pushes his wheelchair into a bar and then picks a fight with the biggest fellow present. There is also the underlying xenophobia, so non-obvious in everyday discourse and behavior, but always there lying under the surface, waiting to arise. The intersection of food, medicine, and The Other, who is tainted by his foreignness and cannot become One of Us is also explosive -- in this case, The Other is literally tainted with an uncertain drug. It's a shame that ractopamine-laden beef importers aren't visibly cruising nightclubs picking up Taiwanese girls, then every Taiwanese anti-foreigner button would be pressed. And this blogpost would be a lot more amusing too.

But enough of beef. The government will bull its way to getting acceptance of a conditional lifting of the ban, enough to satisfy appearances for the US. US beef will flow onto the island, consumers will eat it and this controversy will vanish like campaign promises on the day after the election.

The other interesting ag-related issue is the appearance of another round of avian flu on the island. There was an outbreak of avian flu in December in Changhua, which immediately led to claims that the outbreak had been covered up because of the upcoming election. I heard rumors of this in December but had no way to verify it. However, a group of activists claimed that the government had been covering up evidence of highly pathogenic avian flu for two years....
EAST disclosed two documents from 2010, dated March 1 and March 8, that the council’s Animal Health Research Institute sent to the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine. The documents showed that two technical group meetings held on Feb. 25 and March 5 that year had already received H5N2 Intravenous Pathogenicity Index [IVPI] lab results, which showed readings above 1.2 and 2.41, indicators that the strains were highly pathogenic.

Readings greater than 1.2 in an IVPI test on a six-week-old chicken indicate a highly pathogenic strain.

However, the council’s four reports to the OIE that year all said that the cases were “of a low pathogenic level,” EAST executive director Wu Hung (朱增宏) said, adding that the council should explain why it added “clinical high death rate” as a criteria for determining a virus strain’s severity.
According to the information supplied by the DPP, the Council on Agriculture had filed the report on the outbreak in Changhua on Jan 10, four days prior to the Jan 14 election. Prosecutors are looking into the issue even as we speak, and the director-general of the bureau of plant and animal health inspection and quarantine resigned on the 4th. Media reports (Focus Taiwan) say that a documentary filmmaker has been shooting film of bird flu on farms in central and southern Taiwan since 2006.

Vegetarianism sure is looking good.....
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22 comments:

TE said...

" There is also the underlying xenophobia, so non-obvious in everyday discourse and behavior, but always there lying under the surface, waiting to arise. The intersection of food, medicine, and The Other, who is tainted by his foreignness and cannot become One of Us is also explosive -- in this case, The Other is literally tainted with an uncertain drug. It's a shame that ractopamine-laden beef importers aren't visibly cruising nightclubs picking up Taiwanese girls, then every Taiwanese anti-foreigner button would be pressed. "

This is completely out of line. Given historical US support for Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT and for dictatorships worldwide (Khmer Rouge, Pinochet, South Korean military dictatorship...), I find it completely detestable that you characterize Taiwanese distrust of the US's motives as somehow racially motivated.

The US food industry is disgusting, and no, pointing out bad practices in Taiwan doesn't make it any better. If the choice is between a farmer living 50 miles away from me with bad practices versus a farmer with bad practices living 5000 miles away from me, the choice is for the 50 mile away farmer every time. From ridiculous copyright laws (70 years?!) to beef exports to genetically modified corn to various US agricultural subsidies and exports, the US has been pushing its will on the rest of the world in the name of "free" trade ever since it was able to.

Trust must be earned; the US has very little left in credibility all over the world, and Taiwan is no exception. Every time Taiwan makes a peep about its sovereignty, out comes the US with stern stiff upper lip and a Patriarchal scolding, "no little one, you must report to me before you dare open your little mouth" before muttering "troublemaker". The first thing that comes out of the AIT director's mouth after the election is basically we must "solve" this beef issue, as if some mafioso coming to collect debt.

What's ridiculous is the US being so willing to throw everything away for a miniscule part of the US economy.

Ampontan said...

Some years ago in a Japanese hospital I saw a poster with two graphs. The first was a graph of per capita beef consumption since WWII. It had increased significantly.

The second was a graph of per capita colon cancer during the same period.

It was essentially identical to the first graph.

Michael Turton said...

"", I find it completely detestable that you characterize Taiwanese distrust of the US's motives as somehow racially motivated.""

Actually, I used the word xenophobia, not racism, and characterized it as one aspect of the stew here.

Yes, as I've said, the US position is ridiculous and indefensible.

Yes, as I've repeatedly said, the US beef industry cannot be trusted.

That said, look carefully into ractopamine. Unless you don't eat meat, if you live in the US you've certainly eaten it. If you live in Taiwan you've certainly eaten it. If these protesters go to the US, they will happily line up at Wendy's or Burger King for their daily dose of ractopamine.

This isn't about ractopamine. It's about a lot of other things. The point about poor local practices reminds the reader that these people going apeshit over an additive with no proven ill health effects have no trouble eating far worse food items made at home. So what's the issue here? It obviously isn't food safety.

Michael

J B said...

@TE: Given that the Taiwanese public seems to only care about food safety when the US is involved, I think it is fair to call this a form of xenophobia.

Anonymous said...

"That said, look carefully into ractopamine. Unless you don't eat meat, if you live in the US you've certainly eaten it. If you live in Taiwan you've certainly eaten it. If these protesters go to the US, they will happily line up at Wendy's or Burger King for their daily dose of ractopamine."

That was what I was about to write! As an American who immigrated from Taiwan as a child and who is 3/4 Taiwanese and 1/4 Russian extraction, I do read about/ watch Taiwanese cable/ talk to relatives about Taiwanese society on regular basis. I feel the controversy surrounding U.S. beef DOES play into the issue of xenophobia. I don't see a lot of scientific discussions--thus educating the public--about ractopamine on the various chat/ news programs I've seen on Taiwanese tv. More often, it's a panel of political pundits breaking down hows/ whys of differing agendas.

I have seen news stories decrying pregnant women inadvertently eating (gasp!) steak from restaurant serving imported U.S. beef. Omigod how is that going to affect the fetus and that fetus's future socioeconomic status?! It was just so laughable, the provincial nature of Taiwanese mindset being exploited by sensationalistic media.

"This isn't about ractopamine. It's about a lot of other things. The point about poor local practices reminds the reader that these people going apeshit over an additive with no proven ill health effects have no trouble eating far worse food items made at home. So what's the issue here? It obviously isn't food safety."

I concur again. The deep-seated issue is mistrust of Western science to a certain degree. As someone with science background and has studied nutritional science, I would rather eat steaks and pork chops everyday than eat chemical-laden veggies and fruits, and I don't even eat meat ( I eat Okiwanan-style diet of fish/ eggs/ soy/ tons of veggies/ tiny amount of fruit/ but lower carbs than Okinawans). Why would I rather eat minuscule amounts of ractopamine over pesticide-coated veggies? The toxicity load stays with you longer if you consume agricultural pesticides above safe levels whereas actopamine has metabolic half-life of hours. It has been tested to be non-carcinogenic and mutagenic. I had to look up the studies in order to reach my conclusions.

Taiwanese should use this debate to raise questions about the safety of their own food supply and healthiness of their own eating habits, before harping on foreign poisons. It's rather interesting to me that Cancer, not heart disease is the leading cause of death in Taiwan. For an industrialized nation (yes I mean nation), that is very telling in terms of dietary habits. For most industrialized nations, the leading cause of death is heart disease/ CVA. I tend to believe that large number of Cancer deaths in Taiwan has if not direct then indirect relationship with pollution, toxins in food supply, sugary food/ high carb consumption, and use of (truly poisonous) vegetable oils high in Omega-6.

Jenny

Andrew Kerslake said...

They also care about food safety when China is involved. I guess that clarifies who Taiwanese consider to be "outsiders".

Scott said...

The xenophobia argument would be more persuasive if Taiwan blocked other countries' beef. Yet it seems that beef from Australia (equally 'other') doesn't arouse the same reaction, or that from New Zealand. And these countries don't seem to have the same problems with doped up cattle (not that I am an expert on this, but such seems to be the case from some brief googling). No coincidence there, I suspect.

As plenty of restaurants proudly display 'Australian beef' stickers to attract customers, I'm not sure if the 'anti-foreigner' or xenophobia case is justified. Sure there are dodgy food-safety practices in Taiwan too, but these do not necessarily fly under the radar either (witness the months-long hysteria over 'suhuaji' in sports drinks). I agree with Michael that in the TWese response there is more going on than just food safety, but it doesn't follow that food safety is not the primary issue(sorry for the double negative!).

Michael Turton said...

The xenophobia argument would be more persuasive if Taiwan blocked other countries' beef.

Why? There is no Taiwan beef to speak of, so beef has to be imported. Moreover, Australia is not deeply intertwined with Taiwan's sovereignty. The US is. And as you note, the Aussies do a better job of overseeing their beef than the Yanks.

Let's not forget ractopamine is a recent issue, the original beef issue was mad cow. Dread factor a lot greater....

It's the triple hit on foreign, poisoned, and un-sovereign that is driving this issue. And of course, the pork farmers' fear of imported US pork.

Michael

Steve said...

I've got two customers in Southern California working on nuclear fusion, each using different techniques. One uses the hydrogen/boron combination, is privately funded and making good progress while the other uses what is called a polywell, a totally different technology, and is also making good progress. I was involved with the Sandia reactor back in the '80s and since that time, more advances have been made than most realize.

Interestingly enough, the greatest progress has been made with private consortiums than with most government projects, but the Lawrence Livermore facility is probably the most advanced in the world for that particular technology. It's a fascinating industry...

Lilmo said...

Xenophobia may be too broad a stroke. This somehow reminds me of an old Thomas Friedman article on the Old World's defiance stemming from a sense of weakness: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/02/opinion/ah-those-principled-europeans.html

Unknown said...

I agree with most of your comments - and they are well said. I don't believe there is a real issue of xenophobia here in Taiwan, and if there is such appearance, it's grown out of manipulation by politicians to achieve their political objectives. From what I see, DPP supporters can find their KMT counterpart equally disgusting and unworthy of trust without any good reasons. I would just say the sharply polarized politics in Taiwan has often made a rational debate difficult unless you are prepared to label the distrust and disgust between the two political camps as xenophobia too.

Michael Turton said...

unless you are prepared to label the distrust and disgust between the two political camps as xenophobia too.

It's not driven by xenophobia at all, so I have some trouble understanding why you want to redefine the word.

Unknown said...

I was not trying to redefine the word. I had thought you were saying things got out of proportion because "there is ... xenophobia." I was just saying it's not because of xenophobia but politics.

Anonymous said...

"It's a shame that ractopamine-laden beef importers aren't visibly cruising nightclubs picking up Taiwanese girls"

It's a red-herring at best and dishonest at worst to claim you didn't bring race into the argument. Or do you think Japanese men dating Taiwanese girls easily draw ire when people can't even tell? (And this pairing is quite common, at least in Taipei).

The bottom line is that all else being equal, Taiwanese do what most countries do, which is favor their own problematic agricultural industry. It's an economic argument, not a xenophobic one. However, regardless of *when* the law was implemented, there is no unfair play here (and thus accusations of protectionism are unfounded) since it isn't a case of one set of rules for the US and one set of rules for the natives as the law is the same. This is the bottom line despite all your readings and your nice summary of what happened when.

Michael Turton said...

It's a red-herring at best and dishonest at worst to claim you didn't bring race into the argument.

ROFL. Since when are "beef importers" a race? Your outrage is rather wildly misplaced.

Yes, Taiwan is defending the interests of a particular group, as I've noted before. But this little playlet has many elements.

Michael

Anonymous said...

"Your outrage is rather wildly misplaced."

Is this an attempt at provocation? :-) There's no outrage on my end. Freudian slip?

The "they're taking our women" meme that you promote on this blog is definitely about race. It's not visible and threatening if it's other East Asians and it's not obvious. It can't be, because you wouldn't be able to see it. That's how your little meme works.

"Yes, Taiwan is defending the interests of a particular group, as I've noted before. "

Well, that's fine, but then I don't get how xenophobia plays into this. And your case that Taiwanese are generally xenophobic is surely at the very least a strained argument especially when it comes to consumerism. Their buying habits generally show that the only Taiwanese brands they like are the ones that have Latin names or that have earned respect outside of Taiwan (ie Giant, Merida) before they necessarily become famous within Taiwan.

The only argument I can see here is that Taiwanese don't like being told what to do by the US (or anyone) just so that the US can make more money. There's *nothing* in it for the Taiwanese when they eat US beef. You sure you want to call *that* xenophobia?

Michael Turton said...

The "they're taking our women" meme that you promote on this blog is definitely about race. It's not visible and threatening if it's other East Asians and it's not obvious. It can't be, because you wouldn't be able to see it. That's how your little meme works.

Nope, wrong. It's about foreigners -- they are the same way about Japanese sex tourism -- remember the response to the Japaneses sex tourism handbook a few years ago, or the Japanese sex tourist Mayor Ma had arrested with a prostitute from China (see, the whole thing is a foreign problem!) and then had to let go? They react the same way irrespective of "race" black, white, asian because the "they're rogering our women" is really about foreigners and sex, not particular races and sex.

And your case that Taiwanese are generally xenophobic is surely at the very least a strained argument especially when it comes to consumerism

The xenophobia of Taiwanese doesn't manifest itself in consumption patterns because they chase status, and foreign imports have high status -- it is below the surface and manifested as a politeness directed at outsiders that keeps them in social roles constructed for outsiders. Politeness in Taiwan society is like a pearl in an oyster: a beautiful excrescence around a major irritant. This fear of the foreign/Other is always below the surface and interacts with many other Taiwanese perceptions of the self/other -- like the perception that Taiwan is always behind, or falling into anarchy. Etc.

Xenophobia was probably too strong a word, it triggers too many powerful associations for readers.

I've never argued that there is anything to be gained by consuming US beef. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I've consistently maintained, it's not a product I would want in my country or body, harmful both to the planet and to our bodies. I don't eat it myself. But the issue here is making the US happy and secondarily, how the DPP and the pan-Green side are perceived by the US. And of course, the rampant hypocrisy of excluding the foreign because US firms are out to make money, but cheerfully ingesting 000s of times more dangerous local pork -- while importing beef anyway. We're not arguing over whether we should import beef from the US -- we do that anyway. We're arguing about what kind and how much.

The positions the pan-Green side have adopted have been intransigent and silly. There's no "win" here for them. Since beef is going to come in and is already coming in, why not work with the US to ensure it has low levels of ractopamine and make the US happy? After all, they are asking America to send its sons to die for Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion.

I'd have more respect for the anti-beef position if it would build into a general movement in taiwan to improve the food quality and safety. But there's no sign of that....

Michael

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Unknown said...

"The positions the pan-Green side have adopted have been intransigent and silly. There's no "win" here for them. Since beef is going to come in and is already coming in, why not work with the US to ensure it has low levels of ractopamine and make the US happy?"

At least the pan-Green side made President Ma lose much his credibility again in front of Taiwanese people. No win on the beef yes, but successfully bashing the Ma administration.

Anonymous said...

You said:
"Politeness in Taiwan society is like a pearl in an oyster: a beautiful excrescence around a major irritant. This fear of the foreign/Other is always below the surface and interacts with many other Taiwanese perceptions of the self/other -- like the perception that Taiwan is always behind, or falling into anarchy. Etc."

Nice theory, but hardly believable.
I have lived here for three years, while hardly the same as you I am sure, but I have talked to Taiwanese about their feelings towards foreigns and they do NOT sub-levels of interaction. Most are honestly friendly and mean it.

I have even mentioned your theories and they laugh and say, "His way of thinking is old. We don't think this way."

Perhaps you have been here too long and haven't opened your eyes lately, and aren't open to honest friendliness with some sort of cynicism.
Or a classic line here in Taiwan, "You think too much."

Just saying.

Michael Turton said...

Perhaps you have been here too long and haven't opened your eyes lately, and aren't open to honest friendliness with some sort of cynicism.
Or a classic line here in Taiwan, "You think too much."


That must be it. Luckily the Taiwanese have you to interact with, then!

Michael