Friday, October 30, 2009

What is in the Beef?

The latest and hottest political news in Taiwan is about the removal of much of the restrictions on importing American beef to the island. On October 22, Taiwan’s Department of Health (DOH) announced that Taiwan will amend its import restriction on U.S. beef and beef products, consistent with the guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka “Mad Cow Disease”), and allow more beef more products to enter Taiwan market starting Nov 10th. Further, there will be a transition period, as short as 6 months, during which U.S. exporters will export only beef and beef products derived from cattle less than 30 months in age. This is not a minor political issue. In spring 2008, South Korean’s new cabinet had to resign in less than 4 months of its installation due to a political crisis triggered by a similar policy change (that did get implemented on July 1st, 2008).

BSE or “Mad Cow Disease” was first discovered in brains and spines of cattle in Great Britain back in 1986 with unknown origin and had been found in a few countries including U.S. It is a fatal neurodegenerative disease primarily in cattle. However, it is pretty certain that the disease can be transmitted to certain animals and people who had ingested products of infected cattle although the number of known cases is small. In the case of human, BSE is known as a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) and there is no cure and death is almost certain, thus a series health concern by all.

Responding to the first BSE case reported in U.S. in Dec. 2003, most countries including Taiwan immediately banned the import of beef and beef products from U.S. The financial impact on American cattle and associated business was significant. Prior to it, the total export of U.S. beef and beef product was valued at about $3.8 billion in 2003. In 2004, after the ban, it dropped to $0.8 billion. With the improvement steps by U.S. cattle business and government regulations/monitors, many countries have relaxed the bans to varying degree. As a result, the export has climbed back close to the pre-BSE era at about $3.6 billion in 2008 according to the private USMEF (U.S. Meat Export Federation). In the case of Taiwan, it lifted the complete ban in Jan 2006 and has been allowing import of boneless muscle cuts from cattle 30 month of age or less. It continues to ban others till now including bone-in cuts and so called variety meat (processed or parts other than skeletal muscles) such as ground beef, intestines, brains, spines, etc.

Taiwan has been an important market to U.S. meat export business for a long time. In 2008, Taiwan was the fifth-largest value market for US beef export valued at $127.7 million, after Mexico ($1.4 billion), Canada($716 million), Japan($383 million), South Korea($294 million) according to USMEF. By the way, Taiwan only produces about 6,000 metric tons of beef annually and relies heavily on imports. It imported about 73 thousand metric tons of beef in 2008 out of which 22 thousand metric tons or 30% were from U.S., slightly behind Australia (~27 thousand metric tons) and ahead of New Zealand (~19 thousand metric tons).

It should not surprise anyone that this business and trade interest between U.S. and Taiwan had become a non-trivial political issue in Taiwan. At one end of the spectrum, fevered nationalism and the remnants of anti-imperialism resurfaced, fanned by some with other political agenda. Some scholars and health experts question the scientific and technical basis for policy change and the lack of transparency of the process. What is clear is that the communications have been so poor that top government officials could not give facts and stories clearly and consistently which naturally led to more speculations and suspicions.

After few days of scrambling to put out the fire, President Ma YingJeo responded in public that we can’t go back on the signed agreement as it would damage our credibility in international negotiations (true, but it does not address the question by many about signing the agreement in the first place). Further he suggested that people should not worry about their safety as there can be safeguards by private business and citizens including refusal to consume U.S. beef products as long as government does not violate the agreement. Wow! This is the first time I have ever seen a government openly absolved its own responsibility and pass it to private! That makes me wonder what promises U.S. government has given in exchange for this beef diplomacy?

Going back to the basics, one has to ask what is the fuss about eating beef and what is in the beef anyway. It turns out the answers can be complex given varying levels of industrialization of the beef production in different countries. Majority of beef consumed in U.S. and for export come from domestic feedlots enabled by cheap, federally subsidized corn. Michael Pollan had a lively discussion about it (and human consumption of food in general) in his 2006 best seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Roughly, 6 months after a calf was born and raised on a prairie, it spends 3 months in a pen (for weaning) and then 5 months in a centralized feedlot fed with unnatural diet of corn, fat, protein and drugs. The single dominant business objective is to maximize the amount of meat one can grow without making the cattle too sick to be sent to a slaughterhouse.

When and after being slaughtered, there are numerous opportunities for creating beef products to maximize the value and profit. Quality meat is usually not an issue. It is the utilization and handling of low quality meat and other parts of the beef that causes concerns. Indeed the updated guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) focus on so-called SRM (Specific Risky Materials) such as brains, skulls, eyes, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cords, vertebral columns and dorsal root ganglia from cattle 30 months of age and older, or tonsils and the distal ileum of the small intestine from cattle of all ages. For instance, they should not be used in feed since that is one way BSE gets spread to other cattle. While one may argue the guidelines should be more strict, I am ok with it as a consumer as far as policy goes as long as the guidelines are based on scientific knowledge and if there is a way to trace the suspected material.

What is more disconcerting is the ever popular ground beef and hamburger meat that most of us don’t know what is in it. On Oct 3rd, 2009, New York Times reporter Michael Moss gave an in-depth examination of the safety of ground beef and hamburger meat. It turns out that with highly mechanized process and global trades, hamburger patties can be made from a variety of trimmings and usually low grades of meat sourced from different slaughterhouses in U.S. and abroad (thus hard to trace and safeguard). Fatal contamination of E Coli O157:H7 in public restaurants and ground beef have happened few times in last decade in U.S. though rare. I wonder what and how do Taiwan’s health organizations deal with such a potential risk. Note technically U.S. government regulations for ground beef and hamburger are different; the former has to be derived from meat only while the latter may include additions of fat, trimmings and derivative of scraps. Sounds like the Credit Default Swaps that triggered the current global financial crisis, doesn’t it?

I am disappointed at the way Taiwan government handles the U.S. beef import controversy. I am frustrated with the lack of attention to details and communication. I do enjoy eating beef, especially Chinese beef soup noodle and once in a while, a thick tender juicy steak. I am not paranoid nor do I plan to give them up for that extremely small risk. But I do want to be an educated consumer living in a place where people value science, are interested in pursuing the truth, and can discuss controversial issues objectively and logically. What about you?

Talk to you soon!

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