Public trust in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's government has taken a beating after the island abruptly announced the conditional lifting of a ban on most US beef containing ractopamine, a controversial leanness-enhancing drug.
Ma was re-elected in January for a second four-year term, but his government came under mounting criticism yesterday, with some opposition lawmakers threatening to unseat the cabinet formed just last month.
'In addition to boycotting legislative bills backed by the government, we will not rule out the possibility of unseating the cabinet because of such a decision,' Lee Tung-hao, the opposition People First Party's (PFP) whip in the legislature, said.
The growing controversy is one of the challenges the new cabinet must resolve if it is to win public support.
In a move described as 'highly despicable' by some opposition lawmakers and civic groups, the Ma government issued a statement late on Monday night saying that it had decided to conditionally lift the ban.
Beef treated with a safe level of ractopamine - a feed additive used to enhance leanness in animals raised for meat - would be allowed to be imported, but internal organs from cattle containing the additive would still be banned, as would ractopamine-treated pork products. Imports of all such beef must be clearly labelled as coming from the US, so people can choose to buy it or not.
Opponents of such imports say they are concerned about possible risks to human health from consuming meat containing ractopamine.
Taiwanese media, quoting an unnamed official from the Kuomintang, said the 'difficult decision' was made because of concerns about possible retaliation from the US if the Taiwan ban remained on such US beef.
The Taipei-based China Times said US retaliation could have included suspension of Taiwan's trade talks with the US and obstruction of the island's plan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free-trade hub initiated by Washington.
Other Taiwanese media, quoting the same official, said that if Taiwan remained out of regional free-trade deals, it would be difficult for the island to compete with other countries and especially South Korea, which signed a free-trade pact with the US following its lifting of a ban on US beef containing ractopamine.
Taiwanese Premier Sean Chen insisted yesterday that the government had fully considered the public's health and the decision had nothing to do with the US. He said Washington had pushed ahead with sending officials to Taiwan to evaluate the US visa waiver scheme that the US announced before the island's presidential election.
A group of US officials arrived in Taiwan yesterday to review procedures for passport checks and border controls conducted by the island.
But Chen stopped short of saying why a top US trade official had put off a scheduled visit to Taiwan after the legislature decided to raise a motion banning imports of all meat containing ractopamine.
The motion was even backed by KMT legislators, concerned about public health and mounting opposition from civic groups as well as cattle and hog associations.
The PFP's Lee said the Ma government had repeatedly said it would seek public consensus before lifting the ban, but apparently it had already decided to allow imports. 'What it has done has not only sabotaged the negotiation mechanism between the government and the lawmaking body, but has also seriously hurt its trustworthiness,' Lee said.
Three pro-independence legislators from the Taiwan Solidarity Union occupied the floor of the legislature yesterday, preventing Chen from defending the government in reply to lawmakers' queries. The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party said yesterday that the legislature would now become the major battleground.
A small group of consumer rights activists protested outside the Presidential Office yesterday, condemning the Ma government for failing to respect public opinion. Two pig farming groups said they would protest in Taipei tomorrow because it was possible the Ma government would allow similar imports of pork containing ractopamine.