Taipei, July 17 (CNA) President Ma Ying-jeou said Tuesday he hoped that lawmakers across partisan lines will soon reach a consensus on the controversial United States beef issue, calling it a national rather than political issue.
The lawmakers will consider revisions to a food safety law that would lift Taiwan's ban on the leanness-enhancing drug ractopamine in beef.
The ban has been a serious source of friction in trade relations between Taiwan and the United States.
Taiwan began seizing shipments of American beef containing residues of the veterinary drug in early 2011, prompting Washington to call off the resumption of talks under a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) that had been stalled since 2007.
Speaking at a meeting with Jonathan Huang, president of World Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce, Ma urged the legislature to resolve the issue during an extraordinary session that will take place from July 24-27.
Looking back on the internal debate on the issue, Ma said he was not predisposed to lifting the ractopamine ban to accommodate the United States when the issue was first addressed in February because of safety risks traces of the drug in beef might pose.
The president said he had to wait until food safety issues were clarified to move forward on trade relations with the United States.
"It couldn't have been the reverse, where I insisted we will definitely allow U.S. beef (with ractopamine) regardless of whether it was safe or not," Ma said.
The government proposed on March 5 to conditionally lift the ractopamine ban based on the conclusions of three controversial meetings of experts, sparking an outcry from opposition politicians and civic groups.
But the decision by the United Nations food safety body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, in early July to approve ractopamine standards in beef and pork, which Ma said was in line with the government's general direction, muted some of the dissent.
The Department of Health (DOH) will set ractopamine residue standards based on Codex's standards once lawmakers pass related amendments to food safety regulations, the president said.
The ractopamine standards agreed by Codex on July 5 allow for 10 parts per billion (ppb) in cattle and swine muscle and fat tissue, 40 ppb in liver and 90 ppb in kidneys.
Ma pledged, however, that the government will separate its treatment of beef and pork imports as proposed by the Cabinet on March 5.
He said imported beef will be allowed to contain ractopamine residues within maximum residue levels stipulated by the DOH, but imports of pork containing ractopamine will still be banned because of the dietary habits of Taiwan's people.
He also said that imported meat products will also be required to clearly show the country of origin to give people the freedom to choose the meat products they want.
At Ma's meeting with Huang, he also reiterated Taiwan's desire to become a member of a Pacific Rim trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), within the next eight years.
The administration has argued that resuming the talks with the United States under the TIFA framework will be an important step on the road to achieving the goal.
(By Kelvin Huang and C.J. Lin)