The starch scandal that sparked the latest food scare in the nation has opened a Pandora’s box of toxic evils. Industrial colorings have since been found in bean curd, while thousands of zongzi (粽子, glutinous rice dumplings) were pulled off shelves last week after two manufacturers allegedly altered expiration dates.
It is the second major food scare in two years.
When plasticizer — a chemical additive to make food more pliable — was found in 2011 in food and beverages, public awareness of food safety was raised and the government promised to enhance food safety standards with an amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品藥物管理法).
Yet, both the public and the government seem to be forgetful. People eat and drink without being cautious about food safety, and the proposed amendment remained stuck in the legislature until the last day of the legislative session on May 31, when lawmakers quickly passed it.
Apart from public health risks, the toxic starch scandal has damaged the nation’s culinary reputation and damaged businesses at night markets. The industrial starch was found in mostly traditional Taiwanese food and drink, such as tapioca pearls in bubble tea, gluttonous dumplings, Hakka rice noodles, oyster omelets and sweet taro balls.
These street foods are popular with locals and foreign tourists alike. Bubble tea, which is made with chewy tapioca balls and milk tea, even put Taiwan on the world culinary map and created a sensation not only in Japan and South Korea, but even in the West. Bubble tea shops can now be found in Berlin, London and Paris.
Yet since last month, Singapore and Malaysia have imposed bans on tapioca balls and several other food items imported from Taiwan. Travel agencies have also expressed concerns over the safety of street food, fearing that it could affect tourists visiting night markets, one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions.
Health authorities and the public cannot be forgetful again. The toxic starch scandal has damaged the nation’s international credibility in food safety.
The government must take heed and implement stricter regulations governing food safety. As the recently passed amendment to the act states, domestic food manufacturers should establish a tracking system tracing the flow of the production and trade, including supply sources and buyers, and there needs to be mandatory registration of certain food businesses beyond a certain scale.
The amendment also seeks to deter food manufacturers from using illegal additives by raising the penalties to a maximum of NT$15 million (US$499,000). However, fines alone cannot prevent the use of cheap industrial chemicals in food items. Proactive food inspections must be carried out to ensure consumer safety.
For the public, the industrial starch incident is a sharp reminder that consumers also have a role to play in food safety. They should say no to problematic food products and, in this way, force manufacturers that ignore safety standards out of business.
Manufacturers and food vendors must also be more cautious about the ingredients they purchase from suppliers.
Ensuring food safety is everyone’s business, and it will require a collective effort by the public and private sectors to rebuild the nation’s reputation.