The great beef debate

"I would not eat American beef" said my trusted Chinese teacher.

Our Chinese lessons consist of reading local magazine articles and discussing over them. That week's topic was the Taiwanese government's decision to lift the ban on importing American beef, which was rumored to be highly contaminated through chemicals and unregulated meat packing practices.

Is American beef "unsafe"? I don't know and I believe most people here neither. But people accept it as a fact. Walk into a restaurant and more often than not it proudly makes a statement: "We use 100% New Zealand beef". I recently took a friend to my favorite beef noodle restaurant and she demanded it uses non-US beef exclusively. She is not a superstitious person.

Another fact about American beef is that it is the most inexpensive of the three major imported beef brand: Australia, New Zealand, and US. Cheap=unsafe, that is what we have learned over the years thanks to the media. Also, Taiwanese media is ruthless when it comes to rumors on safety issues, being so close to China.

So is it just another exaggerated phobia? That's what I thought at first, having experienced similar but worse situation in Japan several years ago; when the mad cow disease (the clunkiest name ever for a disease) ruled the gossip world and gave tons of job opportunities to news reporters, a major beef-rice bowl restaurant chain decided to ditch beef entirely and use pork instead. That's like, a steak restaurant throwing out T-bones and sirloin and instead using buffalo wings and pork chops, but still insisting their expertise is steak. Madness certainly existed back then, though in human imagination than in cow brains.

Back in that class, both my teacher and I found a curious statistics in the magazine article; an average Taiwanese consumes twice as much beef as Japanese or even Korean. That was a surprise even for her – is it possible that Taiwanese eat beef much more than the money-studded Japanese and even more, the Koreans who eat barbecue and kimuchi every day (in our individually smart, collectively dumb imagination).

I said probably it was due to the beef noodle industry. My teacher said it cannot be – how much beef can you afford in a standard NT$100 (US$3) noodle? She had a much solid and logical explanation to the unexpected statistics: it's because of the all-you-can-eat buffet that rules Taiwanese restaurant industry and plagues our health.

That explanation made sense. If you are allowed to eat as much meat as you want, you will certainly consume more than your day's share in a single meal. Buffet restaurants are everywhere in Taipei, and they typically cost about NT$350 (US$10). Nice deal.

So that is how the discussion ended. The lessons learned? Taiwanese eat more meat than Koreans, therefore the high level of caution against contaminated beef is not unreasonable.