Fri, Nov 04, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL : Like stealing candy from a baby

It’s a sad day when corruption reaches the level where school principals are apparently stealing food from the mouths of babes.

In an investigation in New Taipei City (新北市), prosecutors from the Banciao District Prosecutors’ Office are probing the dealings of more than 10 elementary-school principals who reportedly accepted kickbacks to give good reviews to lunch vendors that supply between 80 and 90 percent of the city’s elementary schools.

In some cases, prosecutors said, vendors were bribing principals with up to NT$300,000 per semester.

The vendors were reportedly bribing principals to give them better evaluations than they would normally have received based on the quality of their lunches, enabling them to make more successful bids to supply other schools.

If these allegations are true, these bribes could have far-reaching effects on the health of pupils in New Taipei City.

In order to cut costs so they could pay these bribes, lunch vendors likely made deals with the least expensive farmers’ associations they could find, which in turn likely sourced the cheapest food from dubious food companies in the nation’s industrial heartland. The most likely end result of this chain of cost cutting is that food companies used substandard food, while farmers’ associations provided produce containing all kinds of harmful chemical pesticide and fertilizer residues.

However, despite the low-quality, sometimes toxic nature of this food, the whole chain of suppliers could still obtain Council of Agriculture certification. Could it have something to do with these bribes? Could these food vendors have been using their squeaky clean, paid-for evaluations to help their suppliers apply for council certification?

These questions need to be asked, especially after almost one-fifth of school lunches failed nutritional safety tests in a Consumer Protection Commission study.

The commission said that in a test in September, it found chloramphenicol — a chemical that causes severe blood problems such as anemia, low blood platelet counts, low white cell counts and leukemia — in some school lunches. The commission added that two samples of food containing unusually high levels of chloramphenicol and another banned pesticide bore Certified Agricultural Standard (CAS) approval labels.

That’s curious. How did the council go about granting these food vendors certification if they were selling toxic food?

In another case in May, education officials in New Taipei City found that chicken being given to students was tainted with a banned chemical, but had carried the CAS label. The chemical was an antibiotic called doxycycline, which can cause permanent skin sensitivity and thinness and is especially dangerous for children.

These cases are not just about officials taking money that didn’t belong to them; it is about failure to protect the health of children.

In all likelihood, principals taking bribes to give good grades to lunch vendors led to students eating sub-standard food, some tainted with toxic chemicals. The good grades from the schools probably had a knock-on effect, allowing the food companies that sold produce to those lunch vendors to apply for CAS status.

Children are especially sensitive to the types of toxic waste that was found in their food. Those responsible should be held accountable to the highest degree.

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