The decision by President Ma Ying-jeou's Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) government to lift a ban on imports of bone-in beef, intestines and ground beef from the United States has fuelled concerns over whether Ma will similarly betray vows to defend Taiwan's interests in trade talks with the People's Republic of China.
The Department of Health sparked loud protests from KMT and opposition Democratic Progressive Party lawmakers and civic health and consumer safety activists Friday by announcing that Taipei had agreed to permit import of U.S. beef products known to be at risk from infection by "mad cow disease" or "bovine spongiform encephalopathy" (BSE), which can cause incurable "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" (vCJD) if transmitted to humans.
Previously, Taiwan only allowed imports of U.S. boneless beef with no specified risk materials and which was from cattle younger than 30 months in restrictions imposed by the former Democratic Progressive Party government after the U.S. reported its first BSE case in 2003.
Although only over 200 persons are confirmed to have died from this incurable disease worldwide, the number of fatalities is expected to rise due to years-long incubation period.
Since the U.S. is listed as a "controlled BSE risk," the agreement by the Ma government to reopen the Taiwan market to U.S. beef in the forms of "meat on the bone" and intestines or offal and ground beef will expose the health of Taiwan consumers to an unknown, uncontrollable and unnecessary risk.
In the face of the storm of criticism, President Ma has declared that the relaxation was necessary because of due to Taiwan's membership in the World Trade Organization, promised that the imports would take place under conditions of "safety first" and even stated that the KMT government has "no obligation to promote the sales of U.S. beef."
Moreover, Premier Wu Den-yih announced that importers would engage in "self-management" and not import offal or ground beef despite the agreement.
Such statements merely confirm the KMT government's irresponsible decision to abandon its duty to protect the health of our 23 million citizens.
The least expensive and most effective way to protect our citizens from unnecessary risk would be simply to maintain the restrictions on high risk beef products instead of agreeing, sincerely or deceitfully, to lifting the ban.
Significantly, the KMT government's action violated a legally-binding resolution added by the KMT-controlled Legislative Yuan to the central government budget for 2006 that required prior legislative approval before the Executive Yuan could lift the import ban on these high risk beef products.
No KMT government officials have explained why it is "safe, safe and safe," as affirmed by National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi, to lift this ban now compared to 2006 when the former DPP government had refused to bow to Washington's pressure to relax these restrictions.
The blatant disregard by the KMT government of a legally binding legislative resolution will naturally breed suspicion among Taiwan citizens on the sincerity of promises by Ma and Wu to allow legislative monitoring and ratification of the upcoming negotiations on the controversial "economic cooperation framework agreement" with the PRC.
Indeed, the obvious incapacity of Ma and other KMT officials to resist pressure from Taiwan's long-time ally in the beef imports talks has punctured the credibility of his vocal promises not to liberalize imports of Chinese agricultural produce, allow Chinese workers into Taiwan and not denigrate Taiwan's sovereignty in the ECFA talks.
The Washington debacle also provided another case study of how the Ma government has repeatedly discounted the value of Taiwan's political bargaining chips through its habitual "black box" decision making, its refusal to engage in democratic dialogue with opposition parties or concerned civic groups and its habitual resort to manufacturing accomplished facts to short-circuit dissent.
Indeed, it is likely that last week's humiliating surrender at the negotiating table in Washington aimed to defuse rising opposition in Taiwan to the proposed ECFA with the PRC by securing a resumption of talks with the U.S. on the long-stalled "trade and investment framework agreement" (TIFA).
Exposing our consumers to the health risk of consuming U.S. offal and ground beef to defuse opposition to the ECFA would be bad enough, but the KMT government would be exposed as truly incompetent if Ma is telling the truth and our government did not secure any reciprocal benefits from Washington.
Our citizens can hardly expect the KMT government to do any better in the far more critical ECFA negotiations with the no less secretive and authoritarian Chinese Communist Party-ruled PRC or to show any more respect to the Legislative Yuan's oversight.
Given the Ma government's refusal to renegotiate the agreement, we urge citizens to call on their legislators to insert a direct ban on beef offal, intestines, ground beef and other high-risk animal products into the Food and Health Management Law.
Last but not least, we urge all Taiwan citizens should support efforts to require that any comprehensive trade pact with the PRC be ratification by national citizen referendum.