Taiwan set for contentious referendum on US pork imports

Taiwanese will vote on whether to ban imports of pork with ractopamine, a feed additive commonly used in the US.

People join a protest to oppose the import of US pork containing ractopamine, an additive that enhances leanness, in Taipei, Taiwan, November 22, 2020 [Ann Wang/ Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – In January, small gold and yellow stickers began to appear outside the doors of restaurants across Taiwan, indicating that they use only Taiwanese pork.

The stickers can be hard to miss, sometimes overshadowed by ubiquitous COVID-19 contact tracing notices, but they carry huge significance to Taiwanese consumers. Their posting comes amid anger in Taiwan over the government’s decision to allow pork imports from the United States, despite longstanding consumer fears about the presence of ractopamine, a common feed additive used by American pig farmers.

Ractopamine, which enhances leanness in meat, is banned in the European Union, China, Russia and 157 countries, but Taiwan’s government says labels indicating product origin mean consumers can choose whether to eat it.

Still, many consumers are wary.

Pork is a staple of Taiwanese cuisine and an important domestic product. About 90 percent of Taiwan’s pork is supplied by local farmers, who are part of the island’s powerful agricultural lobby.

The issue has triggered protests on the streets and in parliament, and the question of whether or not Taiwan should ban pork imports with ractopamine is one of four issues that will be put to a vote in a national referendum on Sunday.

People join a protest to oppose the import of US pork containing ractopamine in Taipei, Taiwan, November 22, 2020 [File: Ann Wang/ Reuters]

Most Taiwanese are expected to vote in favour of a ban.

Referendums are held every two years and their results are non-binding – voters famously rejected same-sex marriage before it was legalised in 2019 – but they will nevertheless send a strong signal to the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.

US pork woes

The pork imports are widely seen as a concession to the US, Taiwan’s most important ally. Taiwan’s president hopes to sign a free trade agreement with the US and join a trans-Pacific trade deal known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Tsai has said rejecting US pork could show Taiwan is opposed to free trade, at a time when her government needs as many friends as possible amid pressure from China, whose government claims the self-ruled island as its own.

The president has also pointed out that the science around ractopamine has changed in the past decade and international guidelines for its use are now in place as part of the UN’s Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Many voters and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) are not convinced.

Polling by the news site MyFormosa found 55.4 percent of respondents indicated they would vote yes on rejecting the imports while 37.9 percent would oppose a ban.

Taiwan legislators throw pork intestines at each other during a scuffle in the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, November 27, 2020 [File: Ann Wang/ Reuters]
Pork intestines and other organs are seen on the ground after Taiwan legislators threw the parts at each other during a scuffle in the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, November 27, 2020 [File: Ann Wang/ Reuters]

Debate on the issue has become heated. In late 2020, the KMT dumped pig offal on the floor of Taiwan’s legislature in a raucous protest against plans to import US pork at the beginning of 2021. Large three-dimensional pig balloons have regularly appeared at their rallies and outside party headquarters.

“Taiwan cannot just allow the US government, whether the Trump administration or the Biden administration, to take whatever they want. It’s a diplomatic issue, it’s a trade issue, it should not become a political issue,” said Chih-Yung Ho, a KMT party member and spokesman for the party’s former chairman Johnny Chiang. “It’s totally wrong to say that we need US support … in our confrontation against China, so we have to give everything that American politicians want.”

While the KMT has leaned heavily on consumer fears about additives in pork, their position is something of an about-face when the party was last in power.

In 2012, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou began to allow the import of American beef with low levels of ractopamine. At the time, however, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party opposed the imports, though they were seen as far less controversial due to beef’s limited appeal to Taiwanese.

“There are a number of reasons this issue has become so big. Optics are one. Food safety issues are a matter of concern. There was concern about food imports from Fukushima (Japan). Pork has a big place in the Taiwanese diet; beef is less of an issue because a lot of people don’t eat beef because of the historic love of water buffalo,” said Brian Hioe, a frequent commentator on Taiwan and the founding editor of the independent New Bloom Magazine.

Partisan votes

Some see the KMT’s concern for pork safety as an easy way for the party to appeal to voters at a time when its long-term influence appears to be on the decline.

While the KMT has the prestige of being one of the oldest political parties in the world, the average age of a KMT party member is over 40 and its politics skew towards Taiwan’s older generation. Many of its top members still call for closer ties with China and even eventual unification, going against the long-term trend of Taiwanese voters who see their democracy as de facto independent from China, according to continuous polling by National Chengchi University.

People join a protest to oppose the import of US pork containing ractopamine in Taipei, Taiwan, November 22, 2020 [File: Ann Wang/ Reuters]

The party is also low on funds after they were frozen by Taiwan’s Transitional Justice Commission pending an investigation into whether they were ill-gotten gains from when the KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party state.

“This is first and foremost an issue that comes down to party lines. It gives the opposition the opportunity to tap into the fears caused by little-known agents – in this case, ractopamine – to defeat a policy of high importance to the Tsai administration,” said J Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, a US-based think-tank.

“The KMT can use protectionism, fear, disinformation, and yes, latent anti-American sentiment in some circles in Taiwan, to create a perfect storm that will frustrate government policy. This, in turn, can harm US-Taiwan ties, and potentially undermine Taiwan’s efforts to join CPTPP, another goal of the administration. This constitute is the weaponisation of an issue for short-term political gain, made possible by referenda,” he said.

Energy policy

Another contentious question being put to the vote on Saturday is the future of the 27-kilometre long Datan algal reef in northern Taiwan. As part of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s plans to ensure Taiwan has adequate energy supplies, the government wants to build a liquified natural gas terminal near the reef.

Taiwan’s energy needs became international news in May when increased demand during a heatwave, combined with a historic drought, meant its hydropower dams could not provide adequate power. Citizens at home during a coronavirus-related lockdown were affected as well as the factories of Taiwan’s all-important computer chipmaker TSMC.

The natural gas terminal has been billed by the Tsai administration as an alternative to nuclear power, which is a historically unpopular energy source amongst many Taiwanese voters, whose concerns were solidified by the nuclear disaster in neighbouring Japan’s Fukushima in 2011.

Voters will be asked whether they want to restart a suspended nuclear power plant, although polling shows that just over half of respondents oppose this plan. Polling also suggests voters will reject the new natural gas terminal at the Datan reef and ask for it to be moved further down the coast.

A final question will ask whether voters think referendums should be tied to elections or held separately, requiring around five million voters to take part to make its results valid.

New Bloom’s Hioe said he expected voters on Saturday to vote largely down party lines as the referendum had taken on a highly partisan tone on both sides of the political spectrum.

“It’s very theatrical and it’s very caught up in partisan politics, so there’s no ability to have a debate. These are not actually related to the core values of each party. There should be room for debate, but there’s none because of polarised positions,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera