Legislators in Taiwan recently approved a bill allowing imported and domestic beef to contain safe levels of ractopamine, as measured by a maximum residue level. Regulatory agencies have now opened a comment period on this policy change, with final implementation expected this fall.
In recent years Taiwan was one of the hottest markets in the world for U.S. beef exports, setting new value records five years in a row before peaking at $216 million in 2010. Despite the controversy over ractopamine, U.S. exports still reached nearly $200 million in 2011. But this year exports have been hit hard by the negative publicity and political friction surrounding this issue, which created a very uncertain business climate for importers, retailers and restaurateurs. Through the first half of the year, U.S. exports were 60% below last year's pace at 14.5 million pounds and 53 percent lower in value to $42 million.
Joel Haggard, senior vice president of the Asia Pacific region for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, says this regulatory change will definitely help reverse the downward trend in U.S. beef exports to Taiwan.
But, he cautions that even with a loyal customer base and strong consumer demand for U.S. beef, restoring the market to its peak level will not be easy.
"We still have a major rebuilding effort ahead of us. Through this whole [ractopamine] episode we have been running a number of food safety seminars and messaging to all of our key stakeholders, from importers to retailers and food service operators. They are confident, they understand that the safety of the product, its integrity, its quality," Haggard says.
Haggard says news coverage and consumer perception could be a key factor in slowing restoration efforts.
"There will be some initial hesitation to go full bore in terms of volumes. It's been in the news a lot within the last year and so we will have to test in these initial months to see how the consumers respond in the store and in the restaurant," Haggard says.
U.S. pork exports to Taiwan have also suffered from the ractopamine controversy, and at the present time no regulatory relief on pork trade is in sight.
Haggard says this year's lower pork exports to Taiwan are primarily the result of higher domestic supplies, but the U.S. pork industry has also lost sales due to the ractopamine issue. He says a science-based policy for pork is also in order.
"The Taiwan pork import market is really dependent on domestic price and supply and demand situation there," Haggard says, "but we definitely missed some sales there because of the ractopamine issue. We need them to establish an MRL for pork. All the scientific reasoning is out there for them to proceed to do so.
"Politically it's going to be a challenge for them. They do need to step up to the plate."