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In Focus: U.S. Senator Max Baucus

The 'Commander-in-chief of U.S. Beef'

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The 'Commander-in-chief of U.S. Beef'

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He jets around the globe, prying the world's markets open for American beef, and numerous heads of state pay him heed. Who is this "commander-in-chief of U.S. beef" at the center of the maelstrom enveloping Taiwan?

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The 'Commander-in-chief of U.S. Beef'

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 493 )

The film A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford, featured a sprawling property known as Sieben Ranch. Located near the Montana state capital of Helena, this opulent estate spans an area equivalent to 2000 DaAn Parks in Taipei. U.S. Senator Max Baucus, a fifth-generation rancher, grew up there.

Senator Baucus, 71, is none other than the "commander-in-chief of American beef" contributing to the maelstrom that is currently sweeping Taiwanese society. A Democrat from Montana, Senator Baucus has lived in Washington, D.C. for 34 years. His seniority makes him the third most powerful man in the Senate, behind only the heads of the Democratic and Republican party caucuses.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus holds tremendous sway over major financial bills governing tax breaks and healthcare. His support has been essential for the administration of any recent president, be it Obama or Bush Junior, to function and carry out policy.

Proud of his origins, his website proclaims, "Throughout his career, Max has never forgotten where he came from or who he represents."

The Senator sets aside one day each week to return to his home state of Montana, where he visits farms, ranches and constituents to better understand their needs. He says that his top priority is stimulating Montana's economy, and creating good-paying jobs for the people of the state. In recent years, as a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he has led delegations of livestock and commercial interests on trade missions to various countries to ask them to open their markets to American beef.

U.S. Beef's Biggest Champion

Senator Baucus is sure to be prominent wherever U.S. beef is promoted internationally. Despite the opposition of local farmers, no matter how numerous, Japan, South Korea, Chile, Columbia and Panama have all caved in to trade pressure from the U.S. and opened their markets to American beef.

Naturally, Baucus is an instrumental figure at U.S. trade negotiations around the world. While in China imploring Vice Premier Wang Zhishan to allow the renminbi currency to appreciate, the Senator took advantage of the occasion to pressure the Chinese government to open its market to U.S. beef.

For such efforts, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation honored Baucus in 2011 for helping to "secure a breakthrough for greater expansion of U.S. beef in the Korean Market."

Following closely on the heels of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization late last year, Baucus wasted no time in leading a delegation of livestock industry interests from Montana to Russia this past February. While there, the group made sure to lobby President Putin on behalf of U.S. beef.

Not even little Taiwan has escaped the attention of the "commander-in-chief of U.S. beef."

In January 2010, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan began the process of amending the Act Governing Food Sanitation to bar the import of entrails and ground meat, including ground beef from the U.S.

A year later, in January 2011, Taiwan initiated testing of U.S. beef for ractopamine, a leanness enhancer that is unlawful on the island, and almost immediately found trace levels of the drug. As a result, Taiwan began turning away shipments of American beef.

The reaction from Senator Baucus was swift. In February 2011, he and three other senators sent a letter to President Ma expressing their displeasure, and calling on Taiwan to end "unscientific restriction on American beef exports."

The letter explicitly warned that Taiwan's handling of ractopamine would jeopardize bilateral discussions on a possible U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).

Prior to this, he had been at the forefront in a Congressional petition to support a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement, causing the government to see him as a friendly senator towards Taiwan.

But later in 2011, the U.S. suspended bilateral trade-related talks with Taiwan.

Following wave upon wave of pressure from the U.S., Premier Sean Chen announced on March 5 this year that Taiwan's government would consider lifting import restrictions on U.S. beef containing trace amounts of ractopamine.

It is truly difficult to imagine that the state of Montana, with fewer than one million inhabitants, could have such a strong influence on the policies of governments around the world.

According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, the state's agricultural exports were worth US$1.2 billion in 2010, of which livestock and meat products accounted for only nine million dollars.

So is Baucus justified in going to such lengths to exert pressure, to the extent that farmers in various countries respond by taking to the streets in protest?

Baucus, a Democrat elected by the overwhelmingly conservative voters of Montana, has been described in the U.S. media as a Democrat that acts like a Republican. The media also questions his alleged close ties to the pharmaceutical and health care insurance industries.

According to the U.S.-based non-profit Center for Responsive Politics, Senator Baucus received over US$852,000 in political donations from pharmaceutical interests between 2003 and 2008. It just so happens that pharmaceuticals and related products used on American cattle and swine are big-ticket items for the pharmaceutical industry.

The Taiwanese public would do well to learn more about this critical "commander-in-chief of U.S. beef," whose hidden influence lurks behind the smoke of contention in Taiwanese politics and society.

The Commander-in chief's Ultimatum

Following are excerpts from the letter Baucus and his colleagues sent to President Ma Ying-jeou on February 17, 2011:

Dear Mr. President,

We are writing to express our serious concern regarding recent actions by the Taiwan government that have effectively blocked imports of U.S. beef... We urge you to take prompt corrective measures to restore trade and avoid further damage to our bilateral trade relations.

Last month, Taiwan began rejecting U.S. beef shipments that contained trace amounts of ractopamine... Ractopamine is approved for use in livestock by the United States and many other countries. Taiwan's own Department of Health recognized the safety of ractopamine in 2007 when Taiwan notified the World Trade Organization that it intended to establish a maximum residue level (MRL) for ractopamine in cattle and swine...

As a result of these actions, U.S. beef exports to Taiwan have ground to a halt – retailers are pulling products off their shelves, importers are canceling orders, and exporters are redirecting shipments to other markets. We urge you to address the immediate problem relating to beef exports currently in the pipeline and promptly adopt the MRL for ractopamine recommended by the relevant Taiwan agencies.

Moreover, we remain concerned that Taiwan's scientifically unjustified policy on ractopamine continues to impact negatively exports of another major U.S. commodity, pork. Taiwan's health authorities have recognized that trace residues of ractopamine in both pork and beef do not pose risks to human health.

The resolution of the ractopamine matter is critical to avoid serious negative consequences for our trade and broader bilateral relationship and to begin to restore the confidence necessary to permit resumption of the possibility of U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement discussions.

Source: The United States Senate Committee on Finance

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