The food scare involving the use of the banned substance di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, as an emulsifier or clouding agent does not look like it is going away any time soon. Since the story broke and has been investigated by the government, many products have been identified as containing the substance — in items found in five-star hotels as well as food outlet chains around the country.
The government has started to become concerned about the effect the scare is having on spending, as consumers become distrustful of what is on the shelves. Furthermore, we are now discovering that the contamination goes beyond just drink products and that the banned substances have also been found in food. The problem also spreads beyond our stores and shores, as items containing the plasticizer have been exported to at least 16 other countries and areas, including the US, China, the EU, Australia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The point is that this incident has already aroused fears among consumers, making the public deeply mistrustful of both drink and food products on the market as well as the government’s food safety monitoring system.
There is a crisis of trust looming and in order to deal with the plasticizer fright, the government will need all hands on deck, with an integrated approach, being both interdepartmental and inter-regional and including non--governmental bodies, too.
There is already a small amount of cross-departmental cooperation under the guidance of the vice premier, although it would be better if more departments joined in. As far as cooperation between different government levels is concerned, the Department of Health (DOH) has already set things in motion, launching a nationwide investigation that has been largely successful, with only a couple of local governments abstaining. The government should also be encouraging civic groups and members of the public to monitor the situation, assist efforts and provide information about products containing DEHP.
There is also room for putting more pressure on companies to come clean and regulate themselves. The point being that we — or rather the Control Yuan — should not be preoccupied with pointing the finger: We should be addressing the situation at hand, trying to resolve the issue. If any finger-pointing is to be done, it can certainly wait until the scare is over.
The sensible thing to do upon discovering something like this would be for a specific individual or government department to take responsibility for the mess and to have them clear it up, although this would not be entirely fair.
This is because political accountability — in which the responsibility for the problem does lie with the various government agencies and departments that failed to fulfill their duties adequately — notwithstanding, there is also the matter of corporate responsibility that many companies have apparently disregarded, intentionally or not.
Although the government did hold a press conference a few days ago to announce the establishment of a cross-departmental task force, instigated by the vice premier and includes the DOH, the Environmental Protection Administration, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Justice, to demonstrate its resolve to tackle the issue, its handling of the scare thus far is not without its critics, who argue that it is too little, too late.