Tue, Jun 21, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Voters should think of food safety

By Chien Hsi-chieh 簡錫堦

The plasticizer scare has been both serious and far-reaching. It has not only endangered the health of domestic consumers, but it has also dealt a heavy blow to the international image of products made in Taiwan. The repercussions of this incident on the country are still hard to gauge.

Some people advocate handing out heavy penalties and severely punishing unscrupulous businesspeople to stop such things from happening. China did so when the melamine scare erupted there, sentencing the guilty to death or life in prison, while carrying out a major crackdown on the food industry. However, the melamine issue has still not been fundamentally addressed and other food safety problems keep coming up. The temptation of huge profits and a belief among manufacturers that they will get away with it has meant that heavier sentences often are less effective than expected.

Shockingly, despite clear regulations prohibiting the use of plasticizers in food processing, unscrupulous companies have been getting away with doing so for more than 20 years. If it wasn’t for a “nosy” tester who discovered the harmful plasticizer “by accident,” it is possible this substance would have continued to harm even more people. Food safety issues come from a structural problem: links between the government and business. When the relevant legislation was drawn up, punishments were light and the budget was cut, weakening monitoring processes. The average food sanitation budget for each Taiwanese is just NT$11, not even one-tenth of the almost NT$160 spent on each person in some Western nations. If this was not deliberate neglect, then it must have been a deliberate policy decision.

At the time of the five special municipality elections last year, I wrote an article about how assuring food safety could win votes. In the article, I mentioned that food-safety problems ranked second among the top 10 public complaints, but that neither the government nor the opposition cared or made it their main policy issue in an attempt to effectively monitor inferior food products.

I also cited international examples, showing how both Denmark and Sweden have put food product identification systems in place, covering the whole chain from the field to the dinner table, taking food safety to the highest level by stressing transparency and high standards.

Last year, the US passed the Food Safety Modernization Act and Japan established the Consumer Affairs Agency to strengthen management of growing, harvesting and handling food to ensure the safety of their people. Countries around the world have been strengthening food safety controls and if Taiwan’s parties want to win votes, they will have to put some of their focus on food safety.

The Swedes put a lot of trust in the Swedish National Food Administration. For half a century, the administration has paid close attention to food safety on behalf of consumers, which has allowed Swedish consumers to eat with the knowledge that what they are consuming is safe. This has also made the national food administration one of the most trusted government departments in Sweden.

The Swedish experience shows that information transparency and letting consumers and the media take part in monitoring is more effective than administrative procedures and handing out strict punishments. Publicly announcing the names of the manufacturers that break the law along with those of distributors, retailers and anyone else involved in overseeing their operation would let the whole production and distribution chain share responsibility. Consumer boycotts would then be sufficient to cause manufacturers to go bankrupt and keep harmful foods off the market.

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