Taiwan scholars offer mixed views on ractopamine safety at local hearing

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Scientific American accused of promoting ractopamine in government ad. (Pixabay photo)

Scientific American accused of promoting ractopamine in government ad. (Pixabay photo)

Experts speaking at a public hearing at the Legislature offered little clarity on whether pork with trace amounts of the veterinary drug ractopamine posed a health threat to local consumers.

Ractopamine, which promotes muscle growth in animals so they can be sold for higher prices, is banned in Taiwan.

But President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced on Aug. 28 that standards would be set for ractopamine in imported pork, in an apparent effort to clear the way for a trade deal with the U.S.

The move rekindled a long-standing debate over ractopamine's safety originally triggered by the United States' insistence in the 2000s that Taiwan open its market to beef and pork with ractopamine before comprehensive trade and investment talks could be held.

At Monday's hearing held by the Legislature's Social Welfare and Environmental Hygiene Committee, Wang Wen-hsin (王文心), who holds a doctoral degree holder in biomedicine from Kaohsiung Medical University, questioned the safety of the veterinary drug.

He cited a 2015 study that found ractopamine to be toxic to kidney cells of laboratory mice and epithelial cells that line human urinary tracts, and ultimately lowered the survival rate of the cells.

After feeding fruit flies the drug for a certain period of time, the team that conducted the study also found more crystals in their kidneys and their lifespan was shorter than the flies that had not ingested ractopamine, Wang said.

Wang Shun-cheng (王順成), a professor of environmental engineering and management at Chaoyang University of Technology, did not agree about the safety threat, saying that ractopmaine dissolves in water and metabolizes quickly.

"It is not as dangerous as people think it is," Wang argued, saying he believed pork containing ractopamine could be eaten safely.

He blamed the government for creating the wrong impression after both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Defense announced bans on imported pork in meals for students and soldiers not long after Tsai's announcement.

Also at the public hearing was Lee Ching-chang (李俊璋), a distinguished professor of environmental health at the College of Medicine at National Cheng Kung University. He took part in a government-tasked risk assessment of ractopamine in 2019.

The assessment came to the conclusion that the average person in Taiwan would be exposed to less than 10 percent of the "acceptable daily intake (ADI)" set by international standards.

Nevertheless, Lee said women who have just given birth in Taiwan who tend to eat large amounts of pork kidneys and livers to regain their strength could still be vulnerable, and he suggested that maximum ractopamine residue limits for this and other vulnerable groups.

Kuomintang lawmaker Lin Yi-hua (林奕華) criticized the government's new policy as being founded on Lee's risk assessment, which she said was compiled based on old data and statistical evaluation models.

In fact, the assessment said it could not account for cancer or heart disease risk, and the figures it used were the standards for ractopamine set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the global food standards body.

The commission's maximum residue limits have been called into question because of the political nature of the 69-67 vote in 2012 that approved the safety standard and criticism of the lack of studies showing ractopamine to be safe.