Taiwanese consumers are turning away from imported pork, driving up prices and frustrating meat producers’ hopes that the liberalisation of the country’s pork market would offer new opportunities for US suppliers.

On January 1, Taiwan lifted a ban on US pork containing ractopamine, the feed additive. While Taipei hopes the decision will build support in Washington for a bilateral trade deal, the US is eyeing better access to a market dominated by local producers.

Taiwan is one of the most pork-loving nations in the world, ranking fourth with a per-capita consumption of more than 40kg a year in 2019. The meat is the main source of protein for the population.

However, pork imports from the US have nosedived since Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen announced the liberalisation, and demand for other imported pork is now also being hit.

After reaching a historic high of 4,337 metric tons in the week of August 20, a week before Ms Tsai’s announcement, Taiwan orders for US pork slid steeply, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture.

Although the weakening dollar makes US pork increasingly competitive, sales to Taiwan have dropped below the level of past years. In the week between Christmas and New Year, the latest available data, they were a mere 371 metric tons.

Observers believe the Taiwanese opposition’s campaign against the market reform and the government’s pledges to protect food safety have triggered consumer fears that any pork other than local produce is harmful.

More than 150 Taiwanese pork importers signed a pledge last month not to import US pork. Some retailers have cut back on all imported pork.

“People want fresh local meat, they want pork from suppliers they trust,” said an executive at PX Mart, one of Taiwan’s leading food retailers. “You don’t want people posting on Facebook about your store selling poisonous American pork, so we are restocking with more Taiwan pork.”

As a result, local pork is becoming more expensive. Since the import liberalisation took effect, wholesale prices averaged NT$73.54 ($2.63) a kilogramme, the highest recorded in January since 2017, according to the Council of Agriculture.

Many restaurants started raising prices from January 1. Yao Chieh-wen, who runs a small eatery in Taipei, increased the price for a bowl of noodles with deep-fried ribs by NT$10 to NT$130. “We use Taiwan pork, and Taiwan pork is getting more expensive now,” she said. “Nobody wants racto-pork.”

The Kuomintang, Taiwan’s main opposition party, even resorted to throwing pig offal in parliament to demonise the market opening as a gamble with citizens’ health.

The government has promised that vulnerable groups will not be exposed to ractopamine, such as regulating that primary school lunches will only contain Taiwanese pork. It has also launched subsidy programmes for local pork producers.

In her New Year address, Ms Tsai pleaded with the public that, because Taiwan was a country reliant on trade for survival, she had no choice but to allow imports of ractopamine pork.