Mon, Sep 02, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Public must demand transparent food labels

By Lo Wen-jia 羅文嘉

Late last month, the large Taiwanese rice company Sunsuivi was exposed as having been selling cheap, low-quality imported rice labeled as locally grown. The case has attracted much attention and caused public anger. With the news of the Sunsuivi fraud, consumers have suffered yet another blow close on the heels of the Top Pot Bakery deception that was revealed last month. No wonder both the government and the public called for heavy penalties.

These two companies are indeed detestable. Top Pot, endorsed by entertainer Dee Hsu (徐熙娣, better known as Little S), lied, saying that it did not use artificial flavoring in its products and reaping large profits as a result. Sunsuivi operated with the government’s assistance and promoted the Sunsuivi Organic Rice brand, creating the image of an outstanding local company. To everyone’s surprise, it turns out that they mixed in inferior, imported rice even in their own third-grade rice. How can we not be angry?

Both these companies engaged in false advertising and fraudulent behavior. Unfortunately, in our consumer society, most people’s purchases are affected by advertising.

As a result, unscrupulous advertising and embedded infomercials are ubiquitous in Taiwan. They are even made by officials, politicians and political parties to promote election slogans and policy statements.

To avoid such advertisements, we should not place too much hope in the government, which is always acting passively and gauging the scale of protests. Usually, the government responds only as long as there are protests, and then it does nothing until the next scandal occurs and it repeats the same behavior all over again. Government responses depend on public awareness.

Think about this: Taiwan imports more than 100,000 tonnes of inferior quality rice every year. Where does it go? There are several possibilities.

First, it is sold to the armed forces, because soldiers have to make do with what they are offered. In addition, there are many of them and the demand is steady.

Second, it is sold to hotels, restaurants and eateries that provide delivery or take-out services. None of them specify rice grade or source, and consumers do not inquire. Even if they did, they might not get any answers.

Third, it is mixed in the packages of local rice and sold as locally grown rice. Some may be mixing their rice on the sly, while others may simply say that their rice is mixed without providing any information about the proportion of imported to local rice.

Fourth, it is directly labeled and sold as locally grown rice, as the Sunsuivi case shows.

To deal with the first of these possibilities, the Ministry of National Defense should release any pertinent information to clarify what kind of rice our soldiers are eating. As for the third and fourth possibilities, the government’s agricultural agencies should define clear regulations and rules for inspections, and face up to the issue without covering up the truth.

When it comes to the second possibility, which is the most important of all, the public and private sectors should work together to push for a certification system to verify the source and grade of rice used at restaurants. This is similar to what was done by those restaurants that posted notices on their doors to specify that they sell beef imported from Australia when the public was concerned about the safety of US beef.

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