The politics behind Taiwan’s controversial ractopamine pork policy

Society & Culture

The U.S.-Taiwan relationship has evolved over the years, but one point of constant tension has been the import of meat — specifically, whether American products containing ractopamine, an additive used to promote leanness in animals, should be allowed. Taiwan's two major parties have both flip-flopped on the issue.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

On Christmas Eve in Taipei, the street in front of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature, was blocked off with a large tent, giving shelter to a political rally. The sidewalk was lined with tents and their occupants, some who held signs that read, “Taiwanese people don’t eat poisoned pork and beef.”

About a few hundred people had turned out for a protest against American pork containing ractopamine, an additive used to promote leanness in animals. On August 28, 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) announced at a press conference that through an executive order, Taiwan would begin allowing the importation of pork and beef from mature cows (over 30 months old) containing ractopamine beginning on January 1, 2021. The response from the public, two months later, was an anti-ractopamine demonstration in Taipei featuring thousands of people.

Protest against Ractopamine pork in Taipei on December 24, 2020; photo by Itamar Waksman

In her August address, Tsai claimed that the U.S.-China trade war and COVID-19 pandemic had “structurally changed the world economy,” leaving Taiwan standing on a “crucial turning point.” Accepting more American meat imports would be an “important starting point for economic cooperation on every facet” with the United States, allowing Taiwan’s future “economic and trade strategy [to] be more agile.” With U.S.-Taiwan relations at their best point in over a decade, the country had to “wield this strategic opportunity.” She said that allowing the importation of meat containing ractopamine was simply a case of aligning the island with international standards.

This was a big deal. According to Sara Newland, a professor at Smith College, American meat imports to Taiwan have been a long-standing point of tension in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship for decades. Both of Taiwan’s major political parties have changed their stance on the issue over the years, according to political expediency. For Taiwan, which has limited participation in international organizations and official recognition from only a small number of countries, relationships with its allies is important. That is why both parties, when in government, have pushed this policy as a way to improve its relationship with the United States. But the issue of ractopamine has consistently polled poorly, making it a useful political cudgel for the opposition — no matter the party.

Ractopamine is an additive with a relatively recent history. The United States only legalized its use in swine feed in 1999. In 2012, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), a U.N. commission that sets international food standards, established guidelines for safe upper-limit concentrations of ractopamine in meat. However, the majority of places in the world, including Russia, China, and the E.U., ban its use due to the possibility of adverse effects in humans at high doses. Taiwan banned its use in 2006 for similar reasons. Apart from food safety, Taiwan’s domestic swine producers — the average Taiwanese consumes 40 kilograms of pork a year, ranking fifth in the world — fear that cheap U.S. pork containing ractopamine will price them out from the lower segments of the Taiwanese market.

Chen Shui-bian (陈水扁 Chén Shuǐbiǎn), president from 2000 to 2008 and a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors decoupling from the P.R.C., first attempted to liberalize Taiwan’s meat market in 2006. But due to resistance from civic groups and the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which generally favors closer relations to the P.R.C., he only succeeded in allowing the importation of American beef from cows younger than 30 months and pork that didn’t contain ractopamine. In 2012, KMT President Ma Ying-Jeou (马英九 Mǎ Yīngjiǔ) again tried to open Taiwan’s meat market to American beef and pork, only prevailing in allowing the importation of beef containing ractopamine, due to heavy resistance from a similar opposition from the DPP, led at the time by Tsai Ing-wen and grassroots organizations.

Central to the government’s thinking is that Tsai came into power with the expressed goal of pulling Taiwan away from China, giving it greater independence on the international stage, says Kharis Templeman, a researcher at the Hoover Institute. The Ma administration believed in “going to the world through China,” resulting in an increasing reliance on Beijing. This policy became deeply unpopular during the middle of his second term, most notably manifesting in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, and eventually propelling Tsai and the DPP to power in 2016.

According to Templeman, the Tsai administration sees the full liberalization of American meat imports as greatly improving its chance of receiving support from the United States to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

But resistance is strong. Angelique Chen (沈于婷 Chén Yútíng), spokesperson for the Wilder Ginger Flower Movement (野姜花运动 yě jiāng huā yùndòng), a grassroots group formed to oppose the policy, believes that ractopamine is poisonous to humans and should not be allowed to enter the Taiwanese market. The KMT holds that the Tsai administration “should never sacrifice the health of the population,” vowing to fight the policy in the Legislative Yuan and on the local level. It plans to start a national campaign to challenge the policy by referendum in August 2021. As of December 2020, 16 out of 22 counties and cities in Taiwan had passed local food safety ordinances banning meat containing ractopamine or mandating its labeling. However, the Executive Yuan, Taiwan’s executive branch, declared that such a move was illegal, prompting various city councils to ask the supreme court for an interpretation of the constitution.

The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), founded in 2019 by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), also came out in opposition of the policy, attempting to stake a middle ground between the government and the KMT — all while using the controversy as its first major political issue. The decision whether to import meat products containing ractopamine should be transparent and “based on science,” says Qiū Chényuǎn 邱臣遠, a member of the Legislative Yuan for the TPP. He says that the government has chosen to “complicate the issue” by pushing the policy through without having a national conversation, refusing to label products containing ractopamine, and preventing localities from labeling it themselves. His party believes in “returning to the material situation” of the country, especially focusing on communication between the central government and the localities which implement food safety standards, as well as the clear labeling of meat containing ractopamine and its source. He laments that the two major political parties have become “too political,” and that while the government may believe the electorate will quickly forget about the issue, his party will “make them remember” in the 2022 district elections.

Beyond the domestic context, Newland believes the decision to force through the full liberalization of U.S. meat imports is a “meaningful signal” of the direction the Tsai administration will take toward U.S.-Taiwan relations over her second term. She sees the relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. as possibly at its strongest point in recent history. According to Templeman, the end goal of the Tsai administration’s foreign policy is the solidification of a shift away from economic reliance on China, in this case through greater integration in multilateral trade regimes like the CPTPP or a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Qiu, the legislator, notes that Taiwan “hasn’t seen any concrete promises” from the U.S., meaning that it may be making major concessions with no concrete benefit. Chen, spokesperson for the opposition civic group, references something Biden said in December 2020: that he did not want to immediately pursue any new trade agreements. Still, for the DPP, which includes increasingly powerful pro-independence factions, greater integration with the international community is an opportunity to not only further the party’s policy goals, but also cement its centrality in Taiwanese politics for the near future.