Tue, Nov 26, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: When a staple becomes a threat

According to Tourism Bureau statistics, food is a big tourist attraction for Taiwan. The country boasts a large variety of cuisines -- native, Chinese, Japanese, American, European. However, one of the basic ingredients of Taiwanese cuisine -- rice wine -- is under threat from widespread bootlegging.

At least 11 people have reportedly died and many more have been hospitalized after drinking bootleg rice wine. The situation has stirred deep concerns among Taiwan's public, especially housewives.

Rice wine is an indispensable seasoning in local kitchens. Restaurants throughout the country go through staggering amounts of rice wine every day. People also add rice wine to herbal concoctions and tonics that are drunk throughout the year. The wine adds to the taste of the soups and brings warmth to the body.

Aborigines also love the taste of rice wine. Because of the relatively low price of rice wine, some people, including Aborigines, use it as a beverage. Perhaps for this reason, Aborigines have been the hardest hit group in the bootleg incidents.

According to investigators, most of the fake rice wine being sold on the market was made using yeast smuggled from China by Taiwanese fishermen. The brew is then sold directly to restaurants or to roadside stands. However, the true extent of the damage to imbibers' health may be difficult to determine. A former employee at the Department of Health recently told reporters that at least 100 million bottles of fake rice wine is being sold on the market or is in inventories nationwide. Such chilling news may ruin Taiwan's reputation as a gourmet's heaven.

How should the problem be tackled? Unscrupulous businesspeople are brewing fake wine -- seeking to gain wealth at the expense of others. Quite a few restaurants also knowingly buy fake wine as a way of cutting costs. Such unscrupulous people should all be severely punished. However, Beijing must also bear the onus for cracking down on smugglers.

Taiwan, Japan, Australia and other Asian countries have long suffered due to smuggling by Chinese citizens. The smuggling of Chinese-made goods contributed to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease nationwide five years ago -- severely damaging the agricultural sector. Many farmers suffered tremendous financial losses as a result of the outbreak.

Today, many of the Chinese foods and medicines smuggled out of China contain excessive lead, such as the "yellow croaker" fish and traditional Chinese medicines. In the past two years, several women and at least one man have died -- in Japan, Singapore, China, South Korea and elsewhere -- from taking Chinese diet pills containing a variant of fenfluramine, an appetite suppressant that the US banned in 1997 after it was found to damage heart valves. Beijing can't afford to sit back and watch these problems grow. Its own populace is at risk as well from such products, not just those in other countries.

The government should also improve its efforts to stem Chinese smuggling to protect the people of Taiwan from injury. Otherwise, someday we will see housewives and other people staging a protest as big and noisy as the farmers' and fishermen's demonstration on Saturday to protect the health of their loved ones.

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