The latest food scandal involving dubious cooking oils has shaken the public’s already precarious confidence in food safety and sparked speculation about the safety of the oil products they consume. Strengthening food inspection mechanisms and clarifying the issues surrounding edible oils should be a top priority for the government.
Since Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co and Flavor Full Food Inc were found to have blended refined cottonseed oil with edible oil products to reduce production costs, the Ministry of Health and Welfare and prosecutors are scrambling to hold the two manufacturers responsible, while conducting inspections of all 163 edible oil producers in the nation.
In the meantime, misinformation has abounded over the edibility of cottonseed oil and ingredients in other edible oils from the two companies, creating more confusion among the public.
Several doctors have questioned the ministry’s claim that the cottonseed oil contained no gossypol, which causes infertility after refinement. The purification process is no guarantee that the end product would be 100 percent gossypol-free cottonseed oil, they said.
An online article posted on Friday by psychiatrist Billy Pan (潘建志) from Taipei’s Wanfang Hospital attracted attention. He questioned the dramatic increase in the amount of imported cottonseed oil and cottonseed oil cakes in the past two years.
The dramatic rise in the amount of cottonseed oil and cottonseed oil cakes imported does not match some oil manufacturers’ claims that all their products containing cottonseed oil are for export, he said, adding that the oil cakes could be mixed with edible oil products.
Citing an anonymous whistle-blower, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Wei Ming-ku (魏明谷) said that Chang Chi used imported broad beans from Vietnam and Thailand and mixed them with moldy shiitake mushroom stripes and long-frozen imported fish to make satay sauce.
While these warnings were meant to raise awareness of food safety and press the authorities to enhance their inspections, fast-paced information sharing on social networks and massive media coverage on the issue led to public confusion and anxiety before there was evidence to support the reports.
The public has lost trust in food regulators and turned to other sources for food information because of the string of food safety scares. The government must perform its duty and clearly explain each incident to the public.
The government needs to clarify if refined cottonseed oils are edible, whether adulterated oils are harmful, the difference between cottonseed oil and gossypol, and what cottonseed oil cakes are being used for. It should enhance its communication with the public and the food industry, and offer transparent and up-to-date information on its food inspections to regain the public’s trust.
Allowing rumors and speculation to multiply and leaving the public in a panic about food safety is the worst thing to do.
The government should improve inspections and management of large food manufactures and their major clients.
Responding to the cooking oil cases by inspecting their use at restaurants and night markets only spreads fear. These kinds of measures will not prevent more food safety scandals.