The public safety issues brought into focus by the discovery of tainted milk powder and creamer imported from China have once again highlighted the problems Taiwan faces in terms of safety control for imports, as well as the inadequacy of the government agencies and their policies. While this scare is nearing an end, the question that remains is why similar incidents keep happening. As it seems that government officials, manufacturers and the public have not learned a lesson, it is conceivable that a similar scare could occur sometime soon and remind the nation again of its food safety problems.
In corporate management, we often hear the term “experimental learning curve,” which refers to a pattern in which an individual or group becomes more efficient at a task if they acquire more experience performing it.
In the same vein, if Taiwan is to thrive in this complicated new era, it must learn that systems and proven ways of doing things are more important than outdated policies. The government should avoid methods that have failed in the past and view experience as its most valuable resource. Otherwise, there will be no end to trouble and disaster in our society.
The melamine scare offers an opportunity to look at what went wrong and consider improvements.
First, the government’s response to the melamine incident deserves consideration. As trade becomes more liberal, a greater variety of raw materials and products are being transported around the world. To ensure public safety, advanced countries have adopted measures to keep dangerous products outside their borders and have procedures to deal with food scares.
These procedures help ensure speedy identification of the origin of tainted food products that manage to evade their safety nets and make information about unsafe food products available to the public, which helps lower public concern about food products. This prevents consumers from undue panic that could lead to isolationism if customers reject products from other countries.
In sharp contrast, Taiwanese government officials showed a distinct lack of caution after the melamine scare first broke. There were endless disputes between various government officials over which testing standards to employ.
The unorganized way in which our government handled the matter caused many consumers to lose confidence in the government’s ability to ensure food safety. The government should emulate the EU, which set up a food safety report network with China. It should also establish a map for risk management, in which different levels of control are applied to products according to the reliability of food safety standards in the country of origin.
To deal with the increasingly complex issues surrounding food imports, the Department of Health must adjust its allocation of human resources and funds. Some members of the public have suggested setting up dedicated agencies to manage food and pharmaceutical safety control.
The Fisheries Agency, the Agriculture and Food Agency, the Water Resources Agency and the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine were all set up to ensure quality control within specific areas. If we look at the problems still besetting these areas, however, including the difficulties faced by fishermen and farmers, environmental problems such as landslides and illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease, it becomes clear that establishing specialized agencies is not the only way to deal with problems.
The government should make the best use of its personnel and avoid establishing a new agency every time it encounters a new problem. Constantly creating new government bodies can cause conflict with the agencies that originally had responsibility for the problem. These original bodies cannot necessarily be done away with because they are too large. The government should learn from the corporate world and place an emphasis on flat organizational structure, while learning to use limited staff and funds with flexibility.
It is perfectly justifiable for manufacturers to minimize their raw material expenses and manufacturing costs to increase the competitiveness of their products and their market share. Integrity, however, is the most basic value for businesses, which have responsibilities to society.
During the melamine scandal, the affected companies showed varying levels of skill in terms of crisis control and management, with each company making a different impression on consumers as a result of their response to the crisis. The impressions made by each manufacturer will influence the development of their businesses. In this way, the tainted milk taught these companies and others a valuable lesson.
To ensure consumer safety, manufacturers should strengthen inspection mechanisms and quality control procedures along with their suppliers to gain a better understanding of where the ingredients in their products come from and whether they are safe for consumption. Companies should set up transparent food supply chains that let them trace the origin of ingredients. In addition, they must recognize their duties to society before they can achieve responsible management.
As far as the choices of consumers go, there have been no reports of kidney stones or deaths related to melamine in Taiwan. But many rumors about melamine-tainted products have been circulating and consumers are terrified and incapable of making rational judgments. The public now feels distraught and restless.
After the lessons learned during the melamine scare, consumers need to change the mindset they have of using price as the main way to judge the quality of foods. They should support manufacturers who impose strict quality control and those who make the effort to apply for safety and hygiene certifications.
This is the only way we can be sure manufacturers with poor standards do not fill our shops with their products. Consumers have to take action, because if things do not change, companies with little regard for right and wrong and no regard for food safety will continue to do business. In the end, it is consumers who stand to lose the most.
With famine, climate change, dwindling oil resources, financial turmoil, infectious diseases and natural disasters plaguing the world, Taiwan should prepare for many other tests of its ability to respond to disasters. The nation’s future will be determined by whether our government and the public learned during the melamine scare to handle crises with a cool, rational approach. We cannot let the next generation look back and wonder how we ruined the beautiful island our ancestors passed on to us.
Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for agricultural reform.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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