Friday, March 9, 2012

Bully and Beef

In my last blog, I touched upon the Second Opium War of China vs. British Empire in late 19th century.  Interestingly, one hot button issue in recent weeks from Taiwan is the Second Beef War – popular protest of Taiwan government’s attempt in lifting the ban of importing beefs that contains (any) residue of ractopamine 瘦肉.   When asked in his interview earlier today with local media in Taiwan, “America doesn’t bully,” said William Stanton, Director of the AIT (American Institute in Taiwan, the official representative of U.S. government in Taiwan).   You might think the most powerful nation of the world wouldn’t need to bully a small country like Taiwan, or would it?

Hearing and reading news like that, one can’t help but to conjure up this image of an bull running into a china shop, knocking down and breaking any objects around it.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary however, the origin of the word bully had nothing to do with bulls.  It came from 16th century Dutch and German and until late 19th century, it was used with a positive meaning of "sweetheart" "lover, brother".  But Taiwan people are not likely to consider recent statements and actions by Mr. Stanton and other American officials/politicians an expression of brotherly love.

According to the Wikipedia entry, “Ractopamine is a drug that is used as a feed additive to promote leanness in pigs raised for their meat.”  It is the active ingredient in products known as Paylean for pigs and Optaflexx for cattle which were approved by FDA for finishing feeds before slaughter in 1999 and 2003 respectively (and for turkey in 2009).  The drug is now used in about 45% of the U.S. pigs and 30% of cattle.   The problem is that with the current industrial meat production process and regulations in U.S., there is no way for consumers to identify which is which. The obvious motivation behind the push is an economic one:   additional drug sales for Elanco Animal Health, a division of Eli Lilly and Company, additional revenue and profits for pig and cattle farmers/companies from (a few percent more) efficiency and resulting additional lean meat.  And when the domestic market is covered, why not reach out to international markets to sale the products?   

The first Beef War started in Oct 2009 when President Ma’s government reached an agreement with U.S. of a protocol under which Taiwan would import “risky” beef and beef offal (with higher risks of being infected by mad cow disease) from U.S.  In the end, Ma’s Nationalist government could not get the protocol ratified inspite of its supermajority in the Legislative Branch.  The Food Safety Act of Taiwan was amended to allow  more varieties of beef be imported but continue to ban virtually the risky beef and beef offal.  Since then, it is widely believed that Washington has been stalling and holding hostage the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) negotiation with Taiwan.  It is an open secret that Taiwan government wants TIFA badly to prevent itself from falling further into China’s grip economically and from falling behind in its competition with ASEAN countries.   Note since the first Beef War, U.S. beef export to Taiwan has increased significantly - from 27 thousand metric tons in 2009 to about 39 thousand metric tons in 2010.  It went down to 35.4 thousand metric tons in 2011 because of the strict regulation and zero tolerance inspection of imported beef for ractopamine, so complained by U.S. representatives.

Of course, no one would be making a big fuss if there weren’t financial and political interests involved.  $200 million dollars (that is the total value of the 2011 export of beef to Taiwan) may sound small, considering the total U.S. export to Taiwan in 2011 was 26 billion dollars.  Nevertheless, a dollar is a dollar and in U.S., there are particular business and farmers who stand to gain from increased export.  There are powerful lobbyists and politicians who represent these constituents and have allies who scratch each other's back.  On Taiwan side, there are pig farmers who worry about the “slippery slope” with pork next on the wish list, the politicians who seize on the popular sentiment and nationalism, and those of the opposition parties who wouldn’t miss the opportunity to attack the ruling party.

Shall we then ask the experts and trust the science like President Ma and Mr. Stanton of AIT suggested?  There are several arguments offered by both that would lead to the obvious conclusion that it is safe to import U.S. beef with limited residue of ractopamine.  Unfortunately some of these arguments such as “FDA approved”, “it is safe for Americans to consume“ only deepened the suspicion and resentment of the American Exceptionalism.  

Arguments have also been made to “bring it back to science” and “trust the experts” which are less than convincing in this case since experts do not have consensus on the risks of consumption of ractopamine fed pigs and beef.  Although limited studies and absence of serious health threat reports appear to support the claim that meat with small residue of ractopamine is safe for human, science cannot be expected to prove it is risk free.  That brings us to the real and fundamental problem – psychologists have recognized for some time that human are not very good in dealing with very small risks; we either ignore them completely or give them too much weight than any data would support.  

In his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics, devoted a whole section on the conflicting values of the Public and the Experts when it comes down to the judgment of risks like the case with the ractopamine.  Professor Kahneman sketched the opposing views of two of his esteemed colleagues:  Psychologist Paul Slovic does not believe in the existence of objective risk although risks are real.  At the other end of the spectrum, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein believes it is possible to isolate decision makers from public pressure and to trust impartial experts who would not be swayed by irrational and emotional responses of public.  

Professor Kahneman agreed wisely with both.  He had this to say: “Rational or not, fear is painful and debilitating, and policy makers must endeavor to protect the public from fear, not only from real dangers.”  He went on to say “Psychology should inform the design of risk policies that combine the experts’ knowledge with the public’s emotions and intuitions.”  President Ma must be kicking himself for not handling this delicate issue better at the beginning.  It remains to be seen if his government can dig itself out of the hole it is in.  One thing is clear though: science alone cannot solve political problems.

Talk to you soon!

No comments: