More than 100 countries ban meat with the additive, which is used by U.S. pig farmers to promote leanness but frequently poses an obstacle when it comes to exporting abroad. Washington has pressed successive Taiwanese administrations to lift the ban on meat from pigs given ractopamine-laced feed, but the issue has been highly charged in Taiwan, where politicians and industry groups have warned about adverse health affects of the additive.
After a landslide reelection this year and successfully eliminating the coronavirus domestically, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen spent significant political capital lifting the ractopamine ban in September in a bid to smooth trade relations with the Trump administration and pave the way for a comprehensive bilateral trade deal. But the move sparked an outcry from Tsai's agricultural groups, parents and political opponents who vowed to launch a referendum over the decision.
On Friday, Premier Su Tseng-chang, a Tsai ally from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), approached the rostrum to deliver an annual policy address shortly after 10 a.m. while flanked by party colleagues who anticipated trouble. Order quickly unraveled.
Videos showed lawmakers throwing pig organs at each other, while others engaged in more conventional shoving and boxing. Some lawmakers donned rain jackets. Others brawled in business suits soiled by what appeared to be bits of pig fat. Parliamentary staffers pleaded in vain for calm. KMT aides blew whistles and airhorns to heighten the atmosphere. One young lawmaker was put in a headlock.
Taiwan has a history of cameral chaos as legislators seek to demonstrate to constituents their, well, gutsiness. In 2004, a KMT legislator head-butted William Lai, the current vice president, and jabbed him in the stomach. In 2006, lawmaker Wang Shu-hui from the DPP snatched a written document that proposed direct transportation links to China and tried to swallow it so it would not pass; KMT opponents pulled on her hair to force her to spit it out. Chairs were thrown over a 2017 infrastructure bill.
Lev Nachman, a PhD student at the University of California at Irvine and a Fulbright scholar who studies Taiwanese politics, said there is a "long history" of brawling in Taiwan's parliament and that older KMT voters who remember the fight scenes from decades ago might appreciate the display. Younger voters, he said, "would think it's an embarrassment."
But American pork imports, Nachman said, constituted the most controversial issue facing Tsai in a country with a keen sense of food safety, and the KMT wants to capitalize on that at midterm elections two years away.
"It's an embarrassment for Taiwan," he said. "But Taiwanese people absolutely care about this issue, and if there's one issue to go all-in on, this is it."
A 2019 study by political scientists Nathan Batto and Emily Beaulieu of Taiwan's Academia Sinica and the University of Kentucky found that Taiwanese voters generally viewed brawls negatively but that they were important ways to send signals to each party's die-hard supporters.
On Friday, Taiwanese reporters in the media gallery recorded blow-by-blow who had struck whom in the face, and who had slipped on the soiled carpet while trying to land a punch.
Amid the tumult, Su, the premier, soldiered on and finished his speech from an elevated podium, flanked by DPP loyalists in rain jackets.
As soon as he finished, he sat down and flashed a smile. Order was eventually restored, and aides cleaned the floor of entrails and a large placard that featured the English word "INEDIBLE" and the American flag.
Su's was the shortest policy address in Taiwanese history, according to Taiwan's United Daily News. It lasted five minutes.