Why do we care about ractopamine?

Cheming Yang

People and politicians in Taiwan are recently bombarded with information about ractopamine, a substance that they barely know.

What is racotpamine anyway?

Ractopamine is a drug that is used as a feed additive to promote leanness in pigs and cows. It is allowed to use in the US, but forbidden in many countries, like China and Taiwan. Why do we need leanness? Ractopamine will increase the rate of weight gain, improve feed efficiency and increase leanness, which of course means that it is cheaper to get a lot of meat.

Human do not feed on ractopamine for sure. The issue is whether we eat beef enhanced by ractopamine. There are bound to have trace residues. The common practice for countries allowing the use of ractopamine is to set up maximum residue levels (MRLs). But for countries which ban the use of ractopamine it should be undetectable.

How to solve this dispute? World Trade Organization (WTO) is the place where we might find some answers.

Article 20 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) allows governments to act on trade in order to protect human, animal or plant life or health, provided they do not discriminate or use this as disguised protectionism. In addition, there are two specific WTO agreements dealing with food safety and animal and plant health and safety, and with product standards in general. Both try to identify how to meet the need to apply standards and at the same time avoid protectionism in disguise. In both cases, if a country applies international standards, it is less likely to be challenged legally in the WTO than if it sets its own standards.

Specifically for the situation in Taiwan, the US considers Taiwan’s action as technical barriers to trade and people in Taiwan thought they merely want food safety.

We certainly must not compromise food safety in the name of trade. But all sides should try to accept and live up to international standards. Otherwise, there will be no free trade but trade war.

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