After today, U.S. beef may have to fight on both the domestic and foreign fronts over the safety of its product.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) has been working overtime since the Dec. 30th New York Times disclosed that ammonia is being used as a “processing agent” so slaughterhouse trimmings previously not fit for human consumption can be used in hamburger without it being listed it as an ingredient.

Steak4-story.jpgAnd today, lawmakers in Taiwan will vote on a proposed ban on beef from the U.S., including bone-in beef, beef offal, and ground beef.  U.S. beef thought it was getting back into Taiwan after an October agreement between Taipei and Washington D.C.

Taiwan, like several other counties, totally banned U.S. beef after a cow was found suffering from Mad Cow Disease on a Yakima County, WA farm in 2003.  In 2006, some U.S. beef was allowed back in, but not bone-in beef.  The October protocol would end the ban.

In late December, Taiwan’s ruling and opposition parties reached an agreement to amend the island nation’s Food Sanitation Act to bar the import of bone-in and certain other beef products from the U.S.

“The proposed amendment’s provisions do not have a basis in science or fact and thus in no way serve to protect Taiwan’s food supply,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement.

The U.S. trade office claims U.S.  beef and beef products–including offals and ground beef–are safe.  “Millions of American families enjoy these products every day,” the trade office says.

On its domestic front, U.S. beef was forced over the holiday season to begin defending two of its most common practices, blade-tenderization and ammonia treatment.

The 16-state Christmas Eve outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with blade-tenderized steaks used by national and regional restaurant chains made at least 21 people ill.  And the ammonia process used by a South Dakota-based company helps serve up America’s cheapest hamburger or hamburger-like substances to chains like McDonald’s and Burger King and to the National School Lunch Program.

AMI charged such reports “painted an incomplete picture of the U.S. beef safety in particular.”  Here’s what AMI said we should consider:

  • Nearly 8,000 federal inspectors oversee 6,200 meat plants nationwide. Plants that process live animals have inspectors on-site during every minute of operation.
  • Large plants may have two dozen inspectors on-site in a day and they are fully empowered to take actions to stop production or prevent meat from entering commerce if they have concerns.
  • Since 2000, E. coli O157:H7 prevalence has decreased by 45 percent in ground beef to less than one half of one percent, according to USDA ground beef sampling data.
  • Salmonella prevalence in ground beef has declined more than 50 percent since 2000 according to USDA ‘s Salmonella performance data.
  • Since 2000, E. coli O157:H7 infections in humans have declined by 44 percent according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
  • Recalls due to E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks are down over the last two years according to USDA data.

As for Taiwan, there are hints the U.S. could tie its beef issue to Taipei’s need for replacements for certain of its defensive armaments.  Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou received a letter from U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) just before today’s scheduled vote.

Baucus, who chairs the Senate’s Finance Committee, stated, “These recent actions appear to be a continuation of a trend in Taiwan to obstruct U.S. agricultural imports, and they call into question Taiwan’s credibility as a responsible trading partner. . . 

“As a long-time friend and supporter of Taiwan in the U.S. Congress, I am troubled by the actions taken by the Legislative Yuan, and hope that the provisions of the proposed amendment to the Food Sanitation Act that are inconsistent with science and Taiwan’s bilateral obligations will be removed.  I will be monitoring developments very closely and I hope that there can be a positive resolution that allows Taiwan to maintain its credibility and reputation as a reliable trading partner for the United States.”