Constitutional Court backs Executive Yuan on ractopamine order

Taipei, May 13 (CNA) Taiwan’s Constitutional Court has declared as constitutional a central government order invalidating all local government regulations requiring that food products be free of the controversial veterinary drug ractopamine.

Taiwan, like the vast majority of countries in the world, bans the use of the beta-agonist, leanness-enhancing drug by its own farmers, but it announced in late August 2020 that it would open its doors to imported pork containing ractopamine residues, effective Jan. 1, 2021.

The move was made in response to pressure from the United States, which allows residues in its meat and has described import bans on such products as impediments to trade.

To carry out the measure amid opposition from local governments, the Executive Yuan announced on Dec. 31, 2020 that local government regulations requiring zero-tolerance of ractopamine in meat were invalid and that new regulations with similar prohibitions should not be approved.

Many localities with opposition Kuomintang (KMT) administrations defied the government order, and the city councils of Taipei, Tainan, Taichung, Chiayi City, and Taoyuan decided to challenge its constitutionality, arguing that it infringed on the powers of local autonomy laid down in the Constitution.

A hearing was held on the issue on Feb. 22, and the Constitutional Court issued its ruling in the case Friday.

The ruling argued that setting permissible levels of ractopamine residues in imported pork was a matter for the central government to regulate and that the Executive Yuan had not overstepped the authority given it by the Constitution to oversee local governments when it said local government ractopamine bans were invalid.

Under a single state system, local authorities’ ability to set regulations are still bound by the Constitution and national laws, the court’s ruling said, adding that local governments should not set other regulations that violate central government legal standards.

The ruling also invoked Article 148 of the Constitution, which guarantees the free flow of goods, in arguing against local governments being allowed to set different standards for food safety.

It said meat products are sold around the country, and if the permissible residue levels for ractopamine were different from one locality to the other, it would have a direct impact on buyers, sellers, and transporters of those products, and affect the free flow of the regulated meat.

The ruling specifically noted, however, that whether the government’s policy to allow ractopamine residues in imported pork was sufficient to protect the public’s health or whether it had sufficient scientific backing were issues that were beyond the scope of the court’s ruling.

The KMT, which has a majority or plurality in the city councils that challenged the constitutionality of the Executive Yuan’s late 2020 order, called the Constitutional Court’s ruling regrettable and that its interpretation of the Constitution could have a negative effect on the health of people in Taiwan.

In a statement issued Friday, it argued that local governments have the responsibility to ensure food safety and their setting of stricter standards than the central government in line with conditions in their localities could not be seen as violating central government regulations.

The central government’s excessive interference in local autonomy not only has hampered the normal operation of the constitutional system but also hurt the public’s health by opposing local government efforts to protect food safety, it said.

The political party also questioned the court’s argument about the free flow of goods, arguing that banning the use of the veterinary drug by local farmers but allowing its entry in imported meat could cause policy contradictions and unfair market conditions.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which described ractopamine as “toxic” and strongly opposed importing meat containing the veterinary drug when it was an opposition party until 2016, applauded the ruling and said it hoped local governments would follow it.