Thousands of Taiwanese farmers staged a raucous protest yesterday against a government plan to conditionally lift a ban on US beef containing ractopamine, a controversial leanness-enhancing drug.
Shouting 'Step down, [premier] Sean Chen', 'No poisonous ractopamine-tainted beef' and 'President, say no to the US', farmers from across the island rallied outside the legislature and later at the Agriculture Council, demanding that the government scrap its plan.
They twice scuffled with hundreds of police when they hurled rotten eggs and pig excrement at the council building, while attempting to break through barbed-wire barricades erected outside.
'This is only the beginning of our protest if the government refuses to heed our voices,' said one protest organiser from the Republic of China Hog Breeding Industry Association.
The organisation initiated yesterday's protest, which was joined by a number of cattle-farming as well as civic rights groups.
Chen's cabinet issued a statement late on Monday night saying it had decided to conditionally lift the ban. Taiwanese media said the move was the result of pressure from the United States.
Under the plan, beef treated with a safe level of ractopamine - a feed additive used to enhance leanness in animals raised for meat - will be allowed to be imported, but internal organs from cattle containing the additive will still be banned, as will ractopamine-treated pork products. Imports of all such beef must be clearly labelled as coming from the US, so that 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 the drug. Beef farmers and consumer rights groups have lashed out at the government for making the decision without a public consensus.
Pig farmers have also said that after such an abrupt decision, they cannot trust the government to keep its promises about maintaining an import ban on pork products containing ractopamine.
The protesters said Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou should never have bowed to US pressure by opening the market for the American beef in question and demanded that Chen resign for failing to protect the health of the public and sacrificing the interests of local beef farmers.
Chen said yesterday the government had taken note of the island's interests and public health when making the decision. He said the preconditions set for the lifting of the import ban were designed to minimise any harm.
The US representative office in Taiwan denied yesterday that Washington had bullied Taiwan on the beef issue, insisting that ractopamine was a safe feed additive.
But it also said that if Taiwan had continued to maintain the ban, it would have led the US to question the island's commitment to free trade.
Taiwan's Economics Minister, Shih Yen-hsiang, has warned that failing to lift the ban could hamper the resumption of long-stalled trade talks between Taiwan and the US.
The number of years Taipei and Washington have been in dispute over beef imports - US beef containing ractopamine was banned in 2006