Taiwan lawmakers ban some US beef imports

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TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese lawmakers voted Tuesday to ban imports of some kinds of U.S. beef over concerns about mad cow disease, reversing an earlier deal the government had negotiated with Washington.

The legislature’s move to reinstate a ban on U.S. ground beef and offal reflects public concern that Taiwanese health officials lack sufficient safeguards to prevent mad cow disease. Mad cow disease is a brain-wasting disease in cattle, which in humans can cause a variant form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

While the U.S. voiced its disappointment with Taiwan’s move, it is unlikely to have serious consequences for relations between the sides — including American arms sales to the island.

Taiwan purchased $128 million in beef products from the United States in 2008. In 2002 — the last full year that the banned beef items were sold on the island — they constituted about 13 percent of total U.S. beef imports.

Long-running negotiations between the sides to drop the partial U.S. beef ban were concluded in October. Influential congressional representatives from beef-producing states had pressed Taiwan to allow all kinds of U.S. beef to enter the island.

But after the ban was reversed, protesters staged rallies in Taiwan to denounce the move, and the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party exploited fear of mad cow disease to undermine support for the government of President Ma Ying-jeou during local elections in December.

The U.S. has consistently argued that its beef exports are safe. After Tuesday’s vote, the American Institute in Taiwan — the de facto U.S. embassy on the island — slammed the move, saying “it undermines Taiwan’s credibility as a responsible trading partner.”

“The U.S. deeply regrets the decision to restrict U.S. beef imports,” the institute said in a statement. “The legislature’s decision to abrogate the bilateral protocol we negotiated in good faith disrespects both science-based standards as well as the findings of Taiwan’s own risk assessment.”

Speaking to reporters after the legislative action, Ma said he respected it.

“Although there’s scientific basis for the (beef) imports and they are in accord with international standards, the public still had its doubts and the legislature’s decision reflected this,” he said.

While Washington switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it remains Taiwan’s most important foreign partner, providing it with crucial weapons systems to help it defend itself. Tuesday’s legislative action is not expected to seriously affect that alliance.

The Obama administration is widely expected to notify Congress over the next several months about the sale of various arms promised by the Bush administration. These include UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, the remainder of an ongoing Patriot PAC-3 missile-defense package, an initial design study for diesel submarines, and the second phase of a sophisticated command and control system.