Just days after the reelection of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, Washington is stepping up pressure on the administration to back down on its ban on ractopamine, a leanness- and growth-promoting drug used widely in pork and beef production in the United States. Taiwan’s zero tolerance policy for the drug, which applies to both domestic production and imports, has become a critical barrier to further liberalizing trade between the two countries.

The ractopamine dispute is front page news in Taiwan. The country’s newly sworn in cabinet will discuss the contentious dispute at its first meeting later this week and President Ma has already publicly discussed the issue, according to local media reports.

“We have always maintained the same position as U.S. officials — that Taiwanese have concerns about U.S. beef imports and the use of ractopamine,” said Ma, at a recent press conference.

The opposition party has been especially outspoken against lifting the ban on ractopamine.

“No meat products, whether beef, lamb, pork or chicken, should be allowed into Taiwan if it contains leanness enhancers,” said one lawmaker, according to Focus Taiwan

Taiwan, which is the sixth largest export market for beef and pork, began testing U.S. beef for ractopamine in January 2011 and within days found trace levels of the drug. U.S. food safety officials said the levels found ranged from 2.4 to 4.07 parts per billion (ppb), which falls below both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard, of 30 ppb, and the proposed international standard of 10 ppb, but Taiwanese officials pulled the meat from the shelves of grocery stores, including Costco, citing consumer concerns.

In early June, Taiwan rejected nearly 100 tons of frozen U.S. beef after it tested positive for ractopamine at 1.5 ppb. Ten days later, Burger King Taiwan temporarily suspended sales of products containing bacon after the Taiwan Department of Health found U.S.-imported pork products to contain ractopamine and seized the pork before hitting grocery store shelves. Public health officials said they found 3 ppb in fully cooked bacon products. Burger King declined to comment on the matter.  

The issue has strained the U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship. Taiwan’s policy on ractopamine is often cited as a primary reason the two countries have tabled bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks. U.S. officials maintain that Taiwan’s policy is not science-based.

With renewed pressure from Washington to lift the ban, consumers and farmers are threatening protest, according to Focus Taiwan. 

Ractopamine, a drug made by Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly, was first approved by the FDA for pork production 1999, it has since been approved in 25 other countries. The drug has sparked long-running trade conflicts beyond the U.S.-Taiwan hangup.

A recent msnbc.com report, produced by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, described the deadlock between China, the European Union and the United States at the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food safety standards.

“The EU and China, which together produce and consume about 70 percent of the world’s pork, have blocked the repeated efforts of U.S. trade officials to get a residue limit European scientists sharply questioned the science backing the drug’s safety, and Chinese officials were concerned about higher residues in organ meats, which are consumed in China.”

High level controversy at Codex is rare. Though the commission adopts dozens of standards each year by consensus, Codex has been stalled on a residue standard for ractopamine since 2008. 

“U.S. trade officials say China wants to limit competition from U.S. companies, and the EU does not want to risk a public outcry by importing meat raised with growth-promoting drugs, which are illegal there,” added the report.

“Setting a Codex standard for ractopamine would strengthen Washington’s

ability to challenge other countries’ meat import bans at the World

Trade Organization.”
While ractopamine use remains controversial abroad, there is little awareness in the United States, even though there have been issues with the drug.   

“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard

of ractopamine, the feed additive is controversial. Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market, an investigation of Food and Drug Administration records shows.”

The full Food and Environment Reporting Network story, which was also been picked up by Taiwan media, can be found here.

Note: This article was updated to reflect a Feb. 22 clarification issued by msnbc.com that made clear that the adverse drug effects for ractopamine were reported to the FDA. The story adds that the FDA says such data do not establish that the drug caused these effects.