It has recently been reported that the government is considering amending the law to make the labeling of meat compulsory, as a solution to the problem surrounding the import of US beef containing residues of the lean-meat additive ractopamine. Officials hope that this will calm public concerns about its safety.
At first, this sounds like a good idea that will satisfy all parties. However, if care is not taken in legislating this new measure, the government may be creating problems because of the implications for international trade disputes.
Taiwan became a WTO member in 2002. WTO members are obliged to comply with the duties and responsibilities stipulated by the organization, including the results of legal disputes between member states.
If previous WTO case histories concerning the enforcement of compulsory labeling by member states are examined, it becomes clear that the situation is not without precedent. In 2001, for example, the South Korean government enacted legislation requiring imported US beef and domestically produced beef to be clearly identified and sold separately. The US government subsequently took the case to the WTO for arbitration and Seoul lost.
There was another case that the US lost. In an effort to protect dolphins from being caught in fishing nets meant for tuna, the US government legislated that only tins of tuna where the fish was caught using US-approved methods could be labeled with a special “dolphin-safe” accreditation mark, for sale within US borders.
The intention was to provide US consumers with a basis on which to distinguish “dolphin-friendly” cans of tuna. The Mexican government took the case to the WTO for arbitration, and last year the WTO found in its favor.
While the validity of any given WTO verdict is limited to the parties involved, the legal precedents established are generally applicable. If sales of imported US beef disappoint as a result of Taiwan’s compulsory labeling, or if neighboring countries copy the measures, the US government may come under domestic pressure to say that this is a form of unnecessary prejudice, and to submit the case to the WTO for arbitration.
If Taiwan loses the case, it will not only have to abolish compulsory labeling, it will also have to accept any sanctions deemed appropriate by the WTO to compensate the US for any loss of earnings.
If the labeling does make it into law, the issue will become more than just one of food safety or diplomacy: It may well end up testing the mettle of our best international law experts.
Cheng Tun-yu is a post-doctoral assistant researcher at Indiana University.
Translated by Paul Cooper