US Commerce Under Secretary Sanchez postpones Taiwan visit amid beef controversy

DPP demands inspections of all US beef

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – After ractopamine was found in beef served at two prominent steakhouse chains, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party on Thursday demanded thorough inspections of all imported meat, while the United States Commerce Under Secretary postponed a visit.
The Department of Health responded to the DPP demand by saying it would be impractical to test all imported beef batch by batch.
The American Institute in Taiwan on Thursday announced a postponement of the highest-level visit to Taiwan of a US government trade official in a decade. “Unforeseen circumstances have made it necessary to postpone the planned March 4-6 visit of Commerce Under Secretary for International Trade Francisco Sánchez to Taiwan,” an AIT statement said.
“We are currently considering options for a future visit by the Under Secretary. The United States looks forward to continued cooperation on economic and trade relations with Taiwan, our 10th largest trading partner,” the statement said.
It was not known whether the postponement was related to the beef issue.
Government controls on imported food have come under fire for being too lax after several inspections turned out ractopamine-treated beef at supermarkets and restaurants. The products were immediately removed and sent to laboratories for testing, but no fines were issued on the importers, critics said.
Importers or retailers who knowingly sell meat containing ractopamine face fines ranging from NT$60,000 (US$2,000) to NT$6 million (US$204,000). DOH food safety official Tsai Shu-chen said it was difficult to prove that suspects knew beforehand that their products contained the banned substance.
As to the number of fines, the local governments’ health departments were responsible for those, she said.
Tsai said that if ractopamine was found in a product, the level of inspection in the next delivery from the same supplier would be raised by 20 percent, and if the tests were positive again, each batch from that supplier would be checked. The official said that a ractopamine content above the legal level did not represent an immediate threat to the consumer’s health.
Inspecting 420,000 imported products each year would demand a significant investment in manpower and storage space, Tsai said.
A warehouse in Keelung containing an estimated 700 kilograms in meat products had been sealed because it belonged to a company suspected of importing questionable beef, local health officials said.
The Council of Agriculture said Thursday that the weekend’s third inter-ministerial meeting with experts about the use of ractopamine and other leanness drugs in beef from the United States would be broadcast live after a request by President Ma Ying-jeou.
A prominent veterinarian walked out of the second meeting after COA Minister Chen Bao-ji refused to release the contents of the gathering to the media. Consumers’ rights activists protested outside, accusing the COA of being too secretive and of preparing an end to the ractopamine ban by withholding information that showed there was a danger to public health.
The COA said that Saturday’s meeting would be broadcast live to two rooms in another part of the ministry building so journalists could watch. Interested action groups could also choose a limited number of representatives to watch the proceedings along with the reporters, the COA said.
Several experts at the previous meetings downplayed the threat posed by the leanness agents, inviting accusations that they were paving the way for the government to give in to US pressure and lift the ban.