Kudos to the Food and Drug Administration inspector surnamed Yang (楊) who on her own initiative took extra steps to examine problematic samples that subsequently led to the discovery of the chemical DEHP, an industrial plasticizer linked to a variety of health risks in humans, in several brands of soft drinks and dairy products.
However, as a number of Control Yuan members pointed out, many questions remain and investigations are needed to quell public concern over product safety.
Indeed, the latest incident exposed not just the shocking news of potentially harmful chemical additives in beverages and dairy products, but also suggested the existence of loopholes in the nation’s food safety system.
For example, if — as a supplier of emulsifying agent claimed — banned chemicals have been used for years, why didn’t the health authorities detect the illegal additives sooner?
If the Department of Health (DOH), as local media alleged, was made aware of the incident last month, why didn’t it issue warnings to consumers right away?
What about the responsibilities of beverage and dairy product companies? Claiming that they were unaware that the emulsifier contained DEHP said much about the quality control — or lack thereof — carried out by the companies themselves.
Granted the health authorities have up to now seized over 460,000 bottles of soft drinks, 20 tonnes of fruit and yogurt powder and 130,000 packets of tainted probiotic powder, and Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) did yesterday pledge to continue tracing tainted products and to hold the manufacturers accountable, but more aggressive and tougher measures need to be taken.
This will help prevent the reaction to the incident escalating into public panic. If no action is taken, consumer confidence in the government’s role of protecting its people’s health and well-being will be further undermined.
Many vividly recall the food scare caused by China’s melamine-tainted milk powder two years ago. To rid Taiwan’s public of its concerns at that time, the authorities announced that they would step up random checks of products from 5 percent to 20 percent.
Stricter measures were introduced on all imported products from countries labeled as high-risk, which now had to include melamine test reports from their country of origin before being subject to random testing in Taiwan.
As some health experts have warned that the latest food safety incident might generate greater impacts than that of the melamine scare two years ago, it’s imperative that the government swiftly conduct across-the-board inspections of the tainted products and draw up a protection fund for consumers.
It would be utterly irresponsible for the government to place the blame solely on private companies.
The latest food scare, as regrettable as it is, should serve as a lesson for the health authorities — and the companies, for that matter — that they must make much-needed improvements in food safety controls and strengthen inspection mechanisms to better safeguard the public’s health.
This is the only way they can win back the public’s trust and confidence.