Following the recent discovery of maleic anhydride-modified industrial starch in some processed foods, there has been a lot of clamor about sensational issues, such as the suggestion that “toxic starch is the main culprit that has made Taiwan a ‘kingdom of kidney dialysis.’”
Next, the media touted unproven remedies such as that people could metabolize maleic anhydride by including rice wine in their recipes.
In addition, some reports indiscriminately portrayed all businesses — from upstream to downstream suppliers — as equally guilty accomplices.
Later on, government departments produced scientific evidence to show that maleic anhydride is not very toxic and can be metabolized by drinking plenty of water, but by that time the public had already lost confidence in the government.
Instead of accepting these assurances, many people suspected that the authorities were trying to cover up business malpractices.
The outcome is that businesses, government and the public have all lost out. This shows how important it is to establish a system that meets scientific standards while ensuring sufficient communication of information and weighing up all the pros and cons.
In this respect, the General Food Law Regulation No. 178/2002 adopted by the EU in 2002 established a set of food safety control mechanisms centered on risk analysis, which includes carrying out risk assessment on a scientific basis, weighing the pros and cons in order to select suitable means of prevention or control to implement risk management, and ensuring risk communication through the exchange of information and opinions from various parties.
In the US, the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by US President Barack Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, established a similar system. Like the EU regulations, its purpose is to establish food safety policies that meet scientific principles, serve to balance the interests of all parties and maintain the predictability of public authority.
As to Taiwan, the recent maleic anhydride affair prompted the legislature to pass amendments to the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法), adding a chapter devoted to food safety risk management.
These amendments firmly establish food safety policies centered on risk assessment and, through the formation of a food safety risk assessment consultative committee, incorporate the weighing up of pros and cons and risk communication into the risk assessment process.
Although the issue was not a happy experience, the one good thing about it is that it has prompted the passage of this piece of legislation.
Some may say that this is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but better late than never.
Let us hope that the relevant central government departments move quickly to set up the food safety risk assessment consultative committee.
Hopefully, this committee will be able to handle food safety incidents in accordance with the law and based on more rational and objective viewpoints than in the past. If that can be achieved, we can all feel a lot more confident about the food we eat.
Lee Shen-yi is honorary chairman of the Consumers’ Foundation. Howard Chen is a partner at Chien Yeh Law Offices.
Translated by Julian Clegg