Tue, Oct 29, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Blowing the whistle on big firms of little use

By Julian Kuo 郭正亮

Not knowing whether food is safe to eat is probably the biggest worry of the Taiwanese public. From the plasticizer scare in 2011 to the starch scare in May and the current edible oil scare, Taiwan has become known for inferior, adulterated food products. It used to be famous for its cuisine, but now even former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) says “you cannot eat out.”

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has belatedly demanded “strict investigations and heavy fines, the immediate removal [of adulterated products] from shop shelves, an increase in manpower, a proper budget allocation, and that reporting [of violations] be encouraged and volunteers mobilized.”

The Taipei City Government’s Department of Health received a report that accused Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co of adulterating its olive oil in October last year. The authorities tested the product three times without any action being taken and the scandal was only revealed when a Chang Chi employee blew the whistle.

The same thing happened in the plasticizer scare in 2011. On April 7 that year, the Department of Health (DOH) — the precursor of the Ministry of Health and Welfare — discovered that plasticizers had been added to drinks, but only announced this on May 23. At the time, Ma admitted that he was only made aware of it late that month.

There was a similar situation ahead of the starch scare in May. The DOH received a report in February, but local health bureaus only followed it up in April, and the news was only announced in May.

In the edible oil scare, the agency doing the testing has yet to offer a reasonable explanation of why three tests failed to find anything wrong. Could it be collusion between government and business? While prosecutors and investigators took lightning fast action against the companies, they did not accord government officials the same treatment.

Both the inability to find any problems with the products and the procrastination in announcing irregularities makes it clear that unless it has run out of all other options, the government would rather expose the public to hazardous food than offend a manufacturer. In the same way, Ma’s approach to “getting to the bottom of the matter” makes it clear that unless he has run out options, he is not prepared to expose any government officials to “strict investigations and heavy fines.” He will not touch big business, but settles targets medium-sized companies to allow the public to vent their anger.

In the 2011 plasticizer scare, for example, Yu Shen Chemical Co and Pin Han Perfumery Co were singled out, but authorities did not pursue Pin Han’s biggest customer, Uni-President Group. Uni-President argued that it was also a victim and authorities never investigated whether it was aware of what was going on.

Chang Chi imported its cottonseed oil through a big company, and once again, the authorities have no plans to investigate that firm’s culpability.

In both these cases, the cooperation between manufacturers committing the violations and big listed companies had been going on for more than a decade, but the large companies claim they were unaware of what the offending firm was up to. This hard to believe and makes it clear that these big firms only care about profits and lack even the faintest sense of social responsibility.

The government repeatedly fails to detect problems, delays its announcements and fails to investigate government officials or big business. What is the use of encouraging the reporting of violations when the government is unable to manage its agencies, only acts perfunctorily and only calls for “strict investigations and heavy fines” for small and medium-sized enterprises?

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