June 27, 2005

U.S. tells Taiwan beef safe despite mad cow case

By Richard Dobson

TAIPEI (Reuters) - The United States urged Taiwan to reopenits market to U.S. beef on Monday, saying it was safe from madcow disease even as lawmakers in Taipei called for thegovernment to pull U.S. meat from shelves.

Taiwan, previously the sixth-largest market for U.S. beefby value, reinstated a ban on imports over the weekend afterU.S. agriculture officials confirmed a second case of bovinespongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

Always fatal to animals, mad cow disease is spread throughfeed containing material from infected cattle. People cancontract a human version of the disease by eating infected meatbut there have been no such cases blamed on U.S. beef.

"There is no reason to question the safety of the U.S. beefsupply," Douglas Paal, director of the de facto U.S. diplomaticmission to Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan, toldreporters.

"We hope Taiwan will move swiftly to reopen the beef marketafter AIT shares detailed information on the recent BSEdetection."

The United States does not have official diplomatic tieswith Taiwan and instead maintains ties with China, whichconsiders the democratically ruled island a part of itsterritory.

Taiwan conditionally lifted an almost 16-month-old ban onboneless U.S. beef from cattle under 30 months of age in Aprilafter a panel found U.S. measures to detect and preventinfected meat entering the food supply sufficient.

The island of 23 million people imported US$76.5 million ofU.S. beef in 2003 prior to the implementation of a ban inDecember of that year when the first U.S. case was found.

That case prompted Japan and Korea, the number one andnumber three markets for U.S. beef exports, respectively, tohalt imports of billions of dollars of U.S. beef. Neither hasyet resumed American purchases.

Chen Lu-hung, director of the Department of Health's foodsafety department, said he believed U.S. beef was safe to eat,but said the panel would have to review U.S. data on the latestcase before any decision was made to lift the ban.

"There are no new conditions. We just ask them to provideus with the epidemiological data of this specific case. Ouropinions stay the same as before," Chen said by phone. Butparliamentarians and consumer foundation officials are angry atthe government for lifting the ban in the first place and planto sue the government for endangering people's lives by notdemanding U.S. beef be pulled from shop shelves.

"How much longer are you going to wait? How much more timedo you need to evaluate?" Huang Shih-cho, a lawmaker fromTaiwan Solidarity Union, asked health officials at a newsconference.

Only beef bound for Taiwan and loaded on to ships prior toJune 25, when the second case was confirmed, would be allowedto enter the market, health officials said. The government doesnot yet require stores to pull meat from their shelves.

More than 140 human deaths have been blamed on the originalBSE outbreak in Europe from people who ate contaminated beef.

Despite the confirmation of the second case, local mediareported strong sales of U.S. beef at supermarkets.