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Mere appearance of hurting farmers keeps US beef war alive

Recent disputes on the Taiwan government's considerations of lifting its ban on U.S. beef products are supposedly about leanness-enhancing additives, ractopamine in particular. Yet the true focus of the issue for politicians on both Taiwan and the U.S. is probably more the enhancement of their approval ratings in the agricultural industry.

Beef products, after all, account for a meager 0.5 percent of the total annual U.S. imports to the nation. Delaying negotiations of the key Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between Taipei and Washington over the beef dispute is like tossing a major business contract because of ink expense disagreement.

In fact, Taiwan has been calling on the U.S. not to let the beef issue stand in the way of TIFA talks. The chance of that happening, however, is slim in a U.S. election year. Giving in to Taiwan on the beef issue after both Japan and Korea lifted their bans in recent years would be nothing less than political suicide for U.S. lawmakers in agriculture-intensive states.

The same goes to Taiwanese politicians, who cannot afford to look weak on the issue in front of the nation's livestock farmers. And it is not only the support of the cattle farming industry that is on the line, allowing the import of meat products containing ractopamine would also have a major impact on Taiwan's large population of pig farmers.

Both governments have reasons to resume talks on bilateral trade. A deal with the U.S. would substantially boost the Ma administration's argument that closer cross-strait ties improve Taiwan's international standing. For the White House, the deal will also draw Taiwan closer to the U.S. in the three-way dance between Taipei, Beijing and Washington.

What's obstructing both administrations is essentially not even the issue of hurting local farmers but the appearance of hurting local farmers. Both governments should work hard to find a way for their politicians to save face and to convince local farmers of the benefits in a deal.

For example, Taiwan can make the argument to the U.S. that allowing ractopamine can actually hurt U.S. beef imports. With its name already tainted, ractopamine-containing U.S. beef can be a turn-off for Taiwanese consumers. A ban on the additives, in some way, can actually be a seal of confidence of U.S. beef for Taiwanese people, who are famously willing to spend on good food. A survey last year ranked Taiwan fourth after Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia for the amount of money locals spend eating out. Foodie writing has long been one of Taiwan's most popular types of websites. Instead of importing ractopamine beef products only to be ignored by consumers, Taiwan can argue, it is actually of U.S. cattle suppliers' interest to use Taiwan's ractopamine zero-tolerance as a guarantee of the quality of U.S. beef.

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