Sat, Sep 20, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Systemic flaws imperil food safety

By Yang Yung-nane 楊永年

According to a report in the Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper on Sunday, it was a 60-year-old farmer in Pingtung County who brought the factory at the center of the cooking oil scandal to authorities’ attention, sending them information about the plant five times, but the authorities did not take action.

The story drew the public’s attention to the county’s Environmental Protection Bureau, placing the Pingtung County Government under a lot of pressure.

There is no doubt that the county government had been careless, but if an external body had not conducted the investigation and the bureau had “investigated” the waste oil factory instead, it is possible that nothing would have come of it: The main perpetrators might never have come to light and the story might never have developed into the national scandal that it has.

The reasons for this are systemic problems — five of which are identified here.

First, the channels by which people can report violations are not sufficiently transparent. That the farmer informed authorities five times to no avail suggests that there is little supervision or transparency in the process.

That is, there is no central government or third party oversight, which means officials can wrap up the investigation whenever they want.

Another possibility is that the officials knew from experience that if they acted on the information and conducted a thorough investigation, they were likely to meet all sorts of obstacles, such as pressure from their superiors or elected representatives.

The farmer could have gone straight to a local prosecutors’ office, either in Pingtung or elsewhere, or the national-level Environmental Protection Administration, the Agency Against Corruption, or the Criminal Investigation Bureau, but he chose to inform the Greater Taichung police on the recommendation of a friend.

This suggests that the farmer had a very limited understanding of the official channels available to report violations and that the public — especially those living in remote areas — do not know the best way to report violations to the authorities.

It also shows that the law enforcement agencies are not getting the message across, or are not sufficiently transparent.

The second problem is the lack of bureaucratic accountability.

There have been cases where a handful of government officials have taken matters into their own hands and been proactive in enforcing the law, undaunted by resistance from other powerful quarters.

However, these individuals were the exception rather than the rule. Because of flaws in the system, it is far more common for rank-and-file civil servants to choose not to do the responsible thing.

From my own observations over the years, few rank-and-file civil servants have much passion for their jobs. They go by the adage that the more you do, the more chance there is of making a mistake and this, together with the prevailing political climate, tends to dampen their enthusiasm for taking action.

The third problem is the lack of trust in elected officials. In theory, members of the public can approach their local elected representative to ask for help in resolving any issues they might have.

These elected representatives have the ear of government officials, so they should be able to go through these channels to ask officials to make sure the law is enforced.

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