Wed, Jun 05, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Regulatory science and food safety

By Wong Yu-feng  /  翁裕峰

Regulatory science, as defined by Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science, technology and social studies, refers to the scientific basis and principles that drive regulatory policies in various industries, and in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Taiwan is currently debating how administrative and regulatory departments can reduce the number of scandals over the use of industrial chemicals as food additives.

Industrial chemicals are raw materials used in chemical industries, while food additives are natural or synthetic substances are added to foods to preserve their flavor or improve their texture or enhance their appearance and color. China and Taiwan have both been hit by scandals over plasticizers in food, and Taiwan is now coping with a new scare over the use of chemical substances to make starch.

From the point of view of regulatory science, it would appear that these scandals have a number of threads in common.

The first common feature is proactive inspection. In the plasticizers case, a Department of Health researcher was searching for fake medicines using thin-layer and gas chromatography. Abnormal wave patterns in the test results confirmed that a probiotic product contained plasticizer.

In the starch case, the Consumers’ Foundation tested some rice noodles and found that they did not contain any rice. This finding led manufacturers to study their lists of additive ingredients. Then laboratory tests confirmed that there was a problem with the sources of some ingredients, namely the presence of maleic anhydride, which is not suitable for human consumption.

The second common thread to the scandals is the time lag before information was made public. In the case of plasticizers, a month-and-a-half elapsed from the initial detection of the substance until the primary supplier was traced and the information was announced. In the starch case, it took about a month from the time the authorities were notified until the manufacturer was traced, and a further month until the public was informed.

The third common feature is that secondary chemical businesses sold industrial chemicals to firms outside the chemical industry sector. Health authorities found the reason plasticizers had been used as food additives was a chemicals dealer had intentionally misrepresented these substances as food additives in marketing them to foodstuff manufacturers. In the present maleic anhydride case, the substance followed a similar path when it was sold into the foodstuff industry as “synthetic starch.”

The fourth commonality is that these two industrial chemicals introduced into the food industry originated from the same major chemicals manufacturer. Plasticizers and maleic anhydride are subject to different levels of regulation under the Toxic Chemical Substances Control Act (毒性化學物質管理法). Companies that produce and sell plasticizers are obliged to keep a record of whom they sell them to.

Although maleic anhydride is toxic and harmful to human health in that short-term exposure may lead to serious temporary or sustained injury, the law does not classify it as a toxic chemical or require a sales record to be kept.

In both cases, which occurred about one year apart, the authorities’ investigations found that the two questionable substances were both sold and delivered by the UPC Group, one of Taiwan’s main chemicals manufacturers.

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