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Government loses credibility on food safety

Government loses credibility on food safety

Olive oil without olives and peanut oil without peanuts were the joke of 2013. The uproar over the mixing of low-quality oil products and their relabeling in order to demand higher prices from consumers led to a crackdown and to the belief that it could not happen again.
Less than one year later, supposedly edible oil was at the forefront of the news again, this time when the filthiest types of grease were found to have been mixed with oil and distributed to over a thousand food producers, restaurants and bakeries.
Again, high oaths were sworn, suspects were detained and a crackdown was promised.
Yet, this time, we did not have to wait one year until the next scandal. It came barely a month later.
Lard oil for use in the preparation of food was found to have been made with oil only suitable for animal feed.
While the latest scandal still came as a surprise, it shouldn’t have. This time, the situation was different, because the company at the heart of the scandal had been named as problematic just two weeks earlier, during the premier’s question time at the Legislative Yuan, hardly a pillar of secrecy.
By going through data from the customs services, lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party had found out that significant amounts of animal feed oil had been imported into Taiwan from Hong Kong. The find immediately begged the question how the oil had been used.
When information showed that some of the product might have ended up at Cheng I, legislators Chen Chi-mai and Lin Shu-fen turned their attention to the government response. When they told Premier Jiang Yi-huah about their suspicions, he said the relevant government departments would investigate but for the time being, there was no need to order Cheng I’s oil products off the shelves. When the lawmakers asked him whether the oil was still safe for consumption, he said they were.
Yet, barely two weeks later, it has been found that at least 230 companies bought the oil from Cheng I and used it in their own products while 37 schools had their students consume meals prepared with Cheng I oil.
The problem was not discovered thanks to inspectors from the Ministry of Health and Welfare or from the Council of Agriculture, but by prosecutors in Tainan who are certainly no specialists in food safety issues.
The fact leaves open the question of how efficient government departments work whose main task it is to safeguard the safety of food products and the safety of consumers. The three oil scandals of the past year were certainly not the first questions asked about foods in Taiwan. Before that, there were problems with plasticizers, dioxins, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic elements seeping into the food chain.
The government cannot claim it did not know anything or did not have the time to toughen up its inspections and research the conditions and working methods at edible oil producers and other food manufacturers.
The companies at the heart of the three recent scandals, Chang Chi, Chang Guann and Cheng I, might be different names but there is the presence of a common denominator: Ting Hsin International, one of Taiwan’s biggest food conglomerates, better known for its brand name Wei Chuan. The group played a part in each of the scandals, in the first one by using oil from Chang Chi and relabeling it as its own and in the second one by being the first of over a thousand companies to reveal it had been using Chang Guann oil. The latest scandal is the most serious one for Ting Hsin, because Cheng I forms part of its group. The company can no longer claim to be a victim of dubious practices at other businesses, since this time, its own affiliate looks like the one responsible for a nationwide oil scandal.
Questions have been asked by media and opposition politicians whether the lenient treatment Ting Hsin has received so far might not be the result of political donations to the ruling Kuomintang by the four Wei brothers who run the group.
Even if there have been such donations, the government should never put the interests of a party or of a financial backer before the interests of 23 million consumers.
The Cabinet needs to act fast to restore its credibility, which was already in tatters a month ago. Health and Welfare Minister Chiu Wen-ta left office, but replacing one man at the top is easier than changing a system unfit to uncover fraud and gross violations of the most basic food hygiene.
Last month’s scandal already made obvious the need to revise if not abolish the Good Manufacturing Practice quality labeling system.
Other key elements awaiting reform are the level of punishment available to the law, with politicians already clamoring for fines high enough to force violators into bankruptcy and prison sentences long enough to deter potential offenders afraid of having to rest most of their life in prison.
In addition to punitive measures, the government also needed to take action to drive food businesses out of the arms of questionable operators. Bakers, food operators in night markets and restaurant owners need to be told by the government what they can do to avoid tainted oil, and how they should deal with their own kitchen waste and waste oil. The small businesses need to be told where they can get reliable ingredients and where they should turn to for the recycling of their waste in the proper environmental way.
Bona fide food operators also want changes to the tax system, with a 20 percent tax on imported edible oil seen as a way to encourage the importation of questionable oil and its conversion into food oil, precisely the kind of practice which has given rise to the recent scandals.
Licenses for the production of edible and non-edible oils should also be separated, so that food manufacturers can no longer buy animal feed oil and other questionable products.
In the end, any reforms and legal changes will have to be supervised. It doesn’t matter how many new laws and new methods are introduced, if the government fails to enforce them and fails to go after the culprits, they will not be any use.
Taiwan needs an effective government with credibility on the issues above everything else, and the absence of such an administration has been the clearest element in this week’s Cheng I scandal.


Updated : 2021-04-13 15:19 GMT+08:00