Where has the pork gone? the disinformation narratives targeting food safety during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

Where has the pork gone? the disinformation narratives targeting food safety during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election

By Wei-Ping Li, Ph.D.

(This article is part of an analysis series of disinformation trends during the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election.)

We examined the type of disinformation that stoked fears of war across the Taiwan Strait in the first article in our series about disinformation trends during the 2024 presidential election. In the second installment, we look at how false information has fueled Taiwanese concerns about food safety. This type of disinformation has frequently arisen from dubious social media posts or flawed news reporting and has resurfaced in every election over the last three years. It has been circulated in Taiwan to incite voter dissatisfaction with the government and further picked up by Chinese media to highlight the failure of the Taiwanese ruling party to Chinese audiences. 

🔎The background of the food safety disinformation pieces

Many pieces of the disinformation regarding food safety spread during the referendum and elections in the previous three years concerned imported pork from the United States. Taiwan relaxed the ban on importing US pork containing a certain amount of ractopamine, a feed additive that is typically used to increase the leanness of meat but may be harmful to human health if consumed in excess. The hope was that by allowing more pork imports from the United States, Taiwan would increase its chances of negotiating free trade agreements with the United States. However, the additive-added American pork raised concerns about food safety. The question of whether to reintroduce the prohibition on importing ractopamine-containing pork was also included as one of the issues in the national referendum held in late 2021, in which 51.2% of voters said “no” to reintroducing the ban. 

Nonetheless, concerns about American-imported pork have still lingered in the minds of many Taiwanese people. Since then, disinformation and misinformation regarding imported pork have haunted Taiwanese media, both on social media and in mainstream ones. During the 2021 referendum, rumors regarding the dangers of American pork and how some problematic pork had become a part of the Taiwanese daily diet began to circulate. It would also surge when there were concerns regarding other food safety products. For example, when eggs imported from Brazil were recalled in September 2023 due to mislabeled expiration dates, disinformation about the safety of ractopamine pork returned, along with falsehoods that intentionally implanted inaccurate information about imported eggs

In addition to taking advantage of current events, the ractopamine pork disinformation would also appear during the Chinese Lunar New Year when the Taiwanese prepare food to celebrate the lunar spring festival. Both January 2022 and 2023 saw disinformation pieces related to ractopamine pork.

With the approaching 2024 Taiwanese presidential election, the old disinformation returned in November 2023. The chart below shows the time periods when the disinformation containing the theme, “The Taiwanese pork was tested positive for containing ractopamine higher than the standard,” emerged again.

A screen shot of a graphDescription automatically generated
This chart shows four peaks when the disinformation “Taiwanese pork was tested positive for containing ractopamine higher than the standard” was spread. The data was collected from the Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) rumor collection platform, which is comprised of TFC LINE Chatbot and CoFacts. The red dots represent the number of times users reported the disinformation pieces to the platform. The first peak was when a pro-China Hong Kong media outlet published an article about the testing of Taiwanese pork. The second peak was after the referendum held in December 2021. The third peak was in January 2023, after the local elections held in November 2022. We observe another peak in November 2023 before the 2024 presidential election, which is scheduled to take place in January 2024. 

🔎The disinformation narratives

Overall, the narratives of disinformation about ractopamine pork across all these years, including those spread during 2023 before the 2024 presidential election, focused on two themes. 

The first disinformation theme claimed that the Taiwanese government assisted merchants in lying about the origin of the pork. Unsurprisingly, the misleading information claimed that the pork originated in the United States and inexplicably vanished after entering Taiwan. The disinformation further claimed that the imported American pork could have been labeled as Taiwnase products to cheat consumers. This type of disinformation was designed to raise people’s concerns that they had unknowingly consumed items derived from American pork that contained an unhealthy amount of ractopamine. 

In one of the disinformation pieces, the narrator asked the rhetorical question, “Where has the pork gone!?” The answer, according to the narrator, was that the government allowed merchants to import pigs so that the pigs could be slaughtered and their meat could be processed in Taiwan and labeled as a product of Taiwan. 

Indeed, some Taiwanese non-government organizations did point out that the government should have done more to track the whereabouts of imported American pork. However, the disinformation pieces either misinterpreted the government regulation or imposed baseless allegations. More importantly, the assertion also included an old, misleading rumor that the military consumed mislabeled imported pork. 

A similar strategy of repurposing old disinformation as a new rumor was also used in the second theme of American-pork-related disinformation. In this type of false information, the narrator claimed that other countries tested processed pork products from Taiwan and the United States and discovered that the amount of ractopamine in the products was higher than the limit allowed by the authorities. For example, a recent Facebook post said (see the image below): “Breaking news: According to a spot check by the media! Seven out of eight products made in Taiwan and the United States contain ractopamine exceeding the standard—up to 27.6 times!”

A screenshot of a chatDescription automatically generated
Image of the Facebook post that claimed that, according to a newspaper spot check, seven out of eight pork processed products contain ractopamine higher than the standard. 

This “breaking news” was actually not new. The “media spot check” mentioned in this 2023 post was an old news piece published in 2021 by Wen Wei Pao (文滙報), a pro-Beijing state-owned media organization. The original piece by Wen Wei Pao claimed that the newspaper asked experts to examine processed pork products imported from Taiwan and the U.S. However, the report did not reveal the name of the organization conducting the examination. Moreover, the same article suggested that Taiwanese merchants might have fabricated labels or abused the regulations in Taiwan to mislabel the food made of American pork and processed in Taiwan as a Taiwanese product. 

This Hong Kong press piece went viral in Taiwan a few months after it was published in June 2021. However, the food said to be harmful by Wen Wei Pao did not contain any ractopamine, according to tests undertaken by the Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety and the Consumers’ Foundation in Tawan. Wen Wi Pao has also never presented any evidence to back up its claims that Taiwanese merchants forged product labels. Nonetheless, additional disinformation pieces, including one circulated in September 2023 and another in November 2023, consistently used the information in this incorrect study.

🔎The spread of disinformation

The above disinformation, using flawed reporting by pro-China Hong Kong media, was mainly forwarded to and circulated on social media sites such as Facebook. But we also witnessed a flow of false information about ractopamine pork, which initially originated in Taiwanese online forums and ultimately spread to Chinese state media.

For example, false claims that Taiwanese merchants butchered imported American pigs in Taiwan in order to have the meat certified as “Taiwanese products” originally appeared on a Taiwanese internet forum. The online forum article was later bolstered by a Taiwanese media commentator, who shared the claim on his Facebook page and repeated it on political talk shows. A China-friendly news outlet in Taiwan later reported on the commentator’s Facebook post. The article by the Taiwanese media was soon picked up by Chinese state-owned media outlets like Huaxia.com (华夏经纬), Strait DaoBao (海峡导报), Southeast Television (东南卫视), and internet portals like QQ.com (腾讯网). Notably, the content of the Chinese media outlets mirrored that of the Taiwanese media, including the use of an identical picture. Certainly, these Chinese media pieces offered no corroboration and chastised Taiwan’s administration for withholding information from the Taiwanese people.  

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A screenshot of a Facebook post that forwarded the news article in the Taiwanese media containing false information about the “missing American pork in Taiwan.”

Screenshots of the coverage of “the missing American pork in Taiwan” published in two Chinese media outlets, Strait Dao Pao (through the QQ.com news portal) and Huaxia.com. The headlines, pictures, and texts in the news articles had a lot in common with the article in the particular Taiwanese news outlet.


When we observed the prevalent food safety disinformation in the months leading up to the 2024 election, we identified two main narratives: one claimed that the government helped unscrupulous merchants in labeling American pork as products produced in Taiwan and selling to Taiwanese consumers, who prefer local pork. Another narrative claimed that other countries discovered ractopamine, the food additive that Taiwanese people are concerned about, in Taiwanese pork products. The Taiwan FactCheck Center determined that both narratives were incorrect.

Compared with disinformation trends in the elections of past years, false information about food safety is more prevalent in this election. Part of the reason was due to several food-related incidents this year, ranging from the food safety concern triggered by the release of treated Fukushima nuclear wastewater to the recall of imported eggs. These events offered opportunities for disinformation actors to generate and spread false information. Using ingredients gathered from old disinformation and facts about current events, the disinformation actors pushed the wrong pieces of information into the mainstream and social media. The ultimate goal was to stoke fears and direct wrath at political parties and candidates.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.
Summer Chen  (Chief editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center) , Mary Ma (Fact-checker at Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.
Editor: Hui-An Ho