Taiwanese officials will lift a longstanding ban on additive-fed pork imports from the United States this month to open talks on a broader trade agreement with one of its top export markets, people close to the decision process say.
Parliament in Taipei gave the final clearances last week to allowing shipments of American pork from pigs raised on the feed additive ractopamine which is used to promote leanness but is banned by 160 countries including China, Russia and the European Union. The imports, which will begin Friday, remove what Taiwanese officials believe to be a key barrier in U.S. trade ties.
“When I’ve made legislative visits to the United States, the U.S. representatives would always bring up this topic, and now this issue that kept being brought up is out of the way,” independent lawmaker Freddy Lim said Monday.
Formal U.S. interest in a trade deal hinges on President-elect Joe Biden’s government, Lim said, but “I personally feel optimistic given the sum or experiences and reactions from the past.”
Second biggest trading partner
Officials in Taiwan have tried off and on since 1994 for a free trade deal with the United States, the second biggest taker of Taiwanese imports after China.
U.S. trade negotiators sometimes push their deal partners to let in American farm goods as a condition to signing agreements that eliminate tariffs on exports such as manufactured electronics that underpin economies such as Taiwan’s.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says U.S. imports from Taiwan reached $61.6 billion in 2019. Americans buy computers, semiconductors and machinery, among other goods made in Taiwan, resulting in a trade surplus for the Asian manufacturing center that reached $19.3 billion last year.
“It seems to me that nobody can deny because of the small, tiny size of Taiwan and [that] we don’t have enough natural resources, we have to fully engage into active international trade with foreign countries, and nobody here in Taiwan denies we need direct negotiations on trade with the United States, which happens to be one of the biggest countries in the world,” said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.
Hints of a trade agreement
Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang told parliament in November the United States was Taiwan’s most powerful ally as he explained that his government would require on-site inspections at American meat factories and clear product labeling to protect food safety. Taiwan has avoided American pork to date on suspicion that ractopamine residue could cause human health problems.
Government-run Central News Agency reported in November that lifting the ban “is seen as an attempt to pave the way for a bilateral trade deal with the U.S.”
After Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced in August the intent to let in American pork, several U.S. government agencies responded with tweets and news releases.
The de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan said it welcomed the move that would “provide greater access for U.S. farmers to one of East Asia’s most vibrant markets” and that Tsai's decision would “open the door to greater economic and trade cooperation between the United States and Taiwan.”
Pork permeates Taiwanese cuisine from dozens of restaurant entrees to hot dogs buried in pastries and thin strips of meat that turn up in breakfast-bar sandwiches. Some chefs put pork shreds in dishes labeled as vegetarian to give the greens a fatty, salty taste.
No guarantee of a deal
But the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has not said Taiwan must allow pork imports to qualify for a trade deal, minority party lawmaker Charles Chen said.
“I think this matter raises major doubts among Taiwanese domestically about whether there will be any sort of exchange with the U.S. Trade Representative office,” Chen said. “If not, then it doesn’t mean that the trade representative will give us any advantages.”
Chen’s Nationalist Party took pork innards to a November parliament session to show their opposition. Lawmakers went on to throw the entrails at one another, capturing widespread media attention in and outside Taiwan.