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 (MRL). Regulatory agencies in Taiwan have 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 a brewing controversy over ractopamine testing, U.S. exports still reached nearly $200 million in 2011.

But this year, U.S. exports have been hit hard by the negative publicity and political friction surrounding this issue, creating a very uncertain business climate for importers, retailers and restaurateurs. Through the first half of the year, U.S. beef exports to Taiwan were 60% below last year’s pace in terms of volume (14.5 million lbs.) and 53% lower in value ($42 million).

Joel Haggard, senior vice president of the Asia Pacific region for the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), says these regulatory changes 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 won't be easy.

“Taiwan’s always been a really nice market for U.S. beef, often in the top five volume-wise, and setting new value records annually,” he says. “But then the ractopamine issue really exploded and caused a major shakeup in the market.”

Although consumer confidence in Taiwan hasn't been as severely impacted as it was in South Korea, for example, during the controversy over BSE, Haggard still expects the rebuilding effort to take time.

“This has certainly caused a stir among Taiwanese consumers and media, but it’s been a bit more centered on the activist side,” he explains. “So I sense that the average consumer hasn't been as deeply traumatized as we’ve seen in some other past instances. That said, however, we still have a major rebuilding effort ahead of us.”

Haggard says that throughout the ractopamine controversy, USMEF has continued to hold beef safety seminars for key stakeholders in Taiwan such as distributors, retailers and foodservice operators, and these sessions have been very well-received.

“These key customers remain confident in the safety of U.S. beef, not to mention its quality and integrity,” he says. “But it's going to take some time to restore the distribution channels, as there will likely be some hesitation to go full-throttle with U.S. beef. This issue has been in the news a lot over the past year, so in these initial months we’ll have to carefully measure consumer reaction in both retail stores and restaurants. I’m confident we can rebuild demand for U.S. beef, but significant challenges lie ahead.”