The government and the opposition parties have recently been busy trading barbs over the issue of imports of US beef containing ractopamine residues. The government wants to lift the ban on such imports, but is afraid to come out and say so. Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and other opposition parties, seemingly with the support of public opinion, are openly opposed to removing the ban.
However, the question is whether the parties are really doing this in the interests of the nation and public health. A look at the past would reveal a very different point of view.
The liberalization of US beef imports is not a new issue. During the DPP’s time in office, a strong effort was launched to force the deregulation of beef imports. The administration of then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) came under pressure from the US and the public over health concerns.
Documents released by American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) spokesperson Christopher Kavanagh on Friday showed that the DPP government intended to notify the WTO of residue standards for drugs for animal use, including ractopamine. In 2007, the Chen administration pledged in writing to allow US beef imports, but in the end the scope of deregulation was narrowed — with ractopamine not included — as a result of protests by the opposition and hog farmers.
At the time, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) opposition to deregulation was led by then-presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Ma criticized the DPP government, saying it was not only unreasonable to suddenly deregulate the use of ractopamine, but that doing so would create two separate systems — one for beef and one for pork — which would be unfair to swine farmers and harm their rights and interests.
That was an interesting face-off between the two parties. Power has changed hands since then, and the two parties’ stance on the issue has seen a reversal as well. In fact, both the current governing and opposition parties are in agreement on the reasons for lifting the ban, but are coming at it from different perspectives and are saying completely different things. The KMT and the DPP both know the issue inside out, but are playing it for partisan political advantage, setting aside considerations of public health and other national strategic interests.
The DPP sees the government’s predicament and is twisting the knife for all it is worth, even though this is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s working, too, as the government’s popularity ratings are sinking to a new low.
At the same time, the KMT has its hands tied, unable to criticize the DPP for pandering to populist sentiments, as it was guilty of doing exactly the same thing several years ago. Ma may want to criticize the DPP’s behavior, but he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Even though he has learned from Chen’s experience and is trying to deal with beef and pork imports separately, he still risks raising the ire of domestic swine farmers who are afraid he will cave in.
The issue of US beef imports is a thorny one, encompassing the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, visa exemptions, military procurements and even US-Taiwan relations. Avoiding it is not an option. This is not a time for political point-scoring. The government and the opposition need to come together and engage in a rational debate.