Over the past few days, hairy crabs containing traces of carcinogens have once again aroused panic and public concern about food safety.
According to recent news reports, the Department of Health authorized the Bureau of Standards, Metrology and Inspection to perform random safety checks on 29 of 860 consignments of hairy crabs imported from China. The results showed that as many as 20 percent of the crabs contained carcinogens.
The government does not seem to have learned from the experience of developed countries like Japan or the EU, which are quick to suspend imports of questionable products and perform safety checks on every consignment. On the contrary, the government loosened restrictions and until recently allowed each traveler returning to Taiwan to bring up to 6kg of hairy crabs.
The bottom line is the government cannot even ensure the safety of legally imported products, not to mention the massive amount of products smug-gled across the Taiwan Strait.
Following the outbreak of mad cow disease, the EU states have been eager to rebuild consumer confidence in their ability to ensure food safety. They have actively reformed safety inspection systems, issued a white paper on food safety, established specific mechanisms to monitor responsible offices and separated the management of safety tests from food management to ensure impartial inspections.
Germany, for one, changed its Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Forests to the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, making it responsible for the administration of all food safety-related issues. The ministry also set up a Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, which is responsible for risk management, and a Federal Institute for Risk Assessment to take charge of risk assessment and communication work.
Taiwan does not have a single agency responsible for food safety-related issues. Such issues are covered by the Department of Health, the Council of Agriculture, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Environmental Protection Administration. Once there is a food safety crisis, these agencies pass the buck, making it difficult to trace the root of the problem.
In addition, the EU has instituted a safety system that allows officials to trace a product from production to consumption.
For example, the EU requires that every stage of the food supply chain, including material sources, manufacturing history, distribution channels and buyers of the finished product, be recorded in detail, with the records being kept on file for five years. The records can then serve as a reference for testing organizations when conducting food safety checks and publishing the results for public information. This makes it easier for the buying public to make an informed choice and prevent suppliers from neglecting their responsibility.
Germany and other European countries' active food safety management to protect consumers' rights is a responsible approach and something that Taiwan should learn from.
Woo Rhung-jieh is a professor in the department of agricultural economics at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang