TAIPEI, Aug 21 (AP) -- Hundreds of angry farmers pelted riot police with rotten eggs Tuesday at a rally in Taiwan's capital demanding the government stand firm on banning U.S. pork imports containing a controversial hormone.
Taiwan currently bans ractopamine, a hormone that promotes the growth of lean meat in pigs and cattle, calling it a health hazard. The ban covers the use of the hormone in domestic produce and imported meats.
However, the government has said it is considering lifting the ban on imported meats containing ractopamine, and media reports have said it will decide next month whether to maintain or partially lift the ban.
Taiwan's farmers fear that, if the import ban is lifted, their produce will suffer in the domestic marketplace, and local reports suggested the government is under pressure from the United States -- where its use is permitted -- to lift the ban.
Spokesman Thomas Hodges of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy on the island, refuted the charge.
"We wouldn't characterize AIT's advocacy of a science-based evaluation of the use of ractopamine as pressure," he said, referring to a reported government study of the growth hormone.
On Tuesday, farmers gathered outside the Department of Health to urge the government to maintain the ractopamine ban.
Waving placards demanding "No Ractopamine," in English and Chinese, they hurled rotten eggs at riot police and briefly tried to overturn a barbed-wire barricade separating them from the government building.
There were no arrests or injuries during the protest.
Wu Fu-li, from a rural community near the southern city of Kaohsiung, said he came to Taipei to press for the ban to remain, warning that a change in policy would indicate double standards.
"The government doesn't allow us to use this chemical," he said. "Why do they allow other countries to import pork that contains it."
The ractopamine issue is a sensitive one for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which will contest legislative and presidential elections in the first quarter of 2008.
The party needs the strong support of farmers to prevail in the polls, but it is also wary of offending the United States, which remains Taiwan's most important foreign connection.
Complicating the issue for the government is the significant size of the local pork industry. It produces an estimated 14 million hogs a year -- about the number from the U.S. states of Illinois and Indiana combined -- on some 50,000 pig farms.
In July the island rejected two shipments of U.S. pork containing ractopamine.