TAIPEI, Taiwan — Is the tongue an internal organ?
That's the timeless question that gripped Taiwan this week, as the issue of U.S. beef imports once again reared its ugly head.
The spark was Taiwan officials' statement Monday that U.S. beef tongues, testicles, tails and other choice bits are not "internal organs" and therefore not included in a ban on some U.S. beef products passed in January. This meant such imports would be allowed, albeit with close inspections.
That led to an outcry from opposition lawmakers, who accused the government of being sneaky, and splitting hairs.
Just a day later, Taiwan's government flip-flopped, saying it now "suggested" that Taiwan firms not import tongue and some other U.S. beef bits for the time being, until public worries are addressed.
The issue is ostensibly about health concerns over mad cow disease and its human variant. But it's been politicized by opportunists looking to bash President Ma Ying-jeou's government, as well as critics of Ma's governing style. America's top diplomat here said as much this week to Taiwan reporters in remarks aired on Taiwan TV.
"It's unfortunate that some people, for political reasons, are making this into a new issue," said William Stanton, head of the American Institute in Taiwan, which handles U.S.-Taiwan relations in the absence of formal ties. "I eat beef tongue myself, and I don't think it's a problem."
In fact, U.S. beef has become a political issue across East Asia. After North Korean nukes and the value of the Chinese yuan, it's one of the biggest headaches for American diplomats.
It all started in 2003, when a single cow in Washington State tested positive for mad cow disease. The brain-wasting disease is linked, through tainted beef consumption, to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans. There's no known cure, and it's fatal.
Japan, then America's No. 1 export market for beef, promptly enacted a ban on U.S. beef after the finding. Taiwan, South Korea and other countries followed suit.
Since then, the U.S. has insisted its beef is safe and pressured Asian countries to re-open their markets — with mixed success. Japan opened its market to some imports in 2006, only to tighten up again after banned bone parts were found in shipments from the U.S. Tokyo recently announced it would re-open beef talks with the U.S.
Taiwan's political beef-storm hit last autumn, when the government announced it had inked a deal with the U.S. to relax its ban and allow some imports. Protesters were furious that Ma's government had not consulted with the legislature or communicated with the public on the issue first.
Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-U.S. beef protesters was Chu Cheng-chi, a grad student in sociology at Taiwan's top school, National Taiwan University. Incensed by the government's move and frustrated at protesters' inability to change policy, he decided drastic tactics were in order.
So he went to Yangmingshan, a cowfield-dotted, scenic mountain area north of the capital, and collected a cow patty. He then took a video camera-toting friend to the Presidential Office, propped up a table, and proceeded to fix and eat (with ketchup) a cow-dung burger. See his film here:
Under pressure from protesters like Chu, ruling party and opposition lawmakers and the media, the government backtracked. The legislature passed a law keeping a ban on U.S. beef products believed to be most at risk for mad cow disease, including ground beef, skulls, eyes, intestines and other organs.
On the day that law passed, Chu got a large tattoo on his back with a clenched fist and the words "The people stand up," in Chinese.
In an interview this week, he insisted he really ate cow-dung, saying, "I decided we needed a more special and personal way to make our demands known."
He agreed that the beef issue had become politicized. But he said the latest flap again showed the Taiwan government's contempt for the public.
"They didn't talk to the legislature or people first. They didn't communicate," said Chu. "The people's feeling is that the government doesn't respect us, and that it's trying to sneak these products into Taiwan."
Chu ticked off a list of concerns about U.S. beef. He said there was no cure for vCJD, and that consumers couldn't avoid risks by skipping beef, since tainted beef parts could make its way into other products.
Moreover, he said, the large-scale U.S. beef industry, with its huge machinery and chemical fertilizers to grow cow feed, is environmentally unfriendly. "It takes up so many resources," he said. "It's such a wasteful product."
Meanwhile, U.S. beef exporters, powerful U.S. politicians in beef-exporting states and U.S. trade officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Taiwan and other Asian trade partners. Trade officials this week said they were "deeply disappointed" at Taiwan's planned inspection process, and other U.S. officials insisted American beef is safe.
No vCJD cases have been linked to consumption of U.S. beef. (Of three known U.S. cases of vCJD, two were "likely exposed" in the United Kingdom, and the third was "most likely" infected as a child in Saudi Arabia, according to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet.)
And American officials cite a 2007 ruling by the World Organization for Animal Health that U.S. beef was safe for export "provided that certain slaughter and beef processing conditions are met." They note that there's been no case of mad cow disease in any U.S. cow born after 1997.
But it's hard to convince the Taiwanese public, especially when they can watch a cow-dung-burger-eating protester instead.