Health authorities have ordered a recall of all food products illegally imported from five Japanese prefectures affected by the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. While the recalled products that have so far been checked for radioactivity have passed the test, that such items made it into the country in the first place shows that the government has once again failed to ensure food safety and protect consumers’ rights.
Following a spate of cooking oil scandals last year and consequent boycotts of products from Ting Hsin International Group and its subsidiaries, the government promised a full-scale inspection of food products to stamp out irregularities.
Certainly, governments at both the local and central level are under increasing pressure to increase inspection of foodstuffs. Police in Kaohsiung recently seized large amounts of tainted seaweed products — which were found to have been soaked in industrial-grade ammonium aluminum sulfate and ammonium bicarbonate solutions to soften them — and the Taichung Health Bureau warned earlier this year that some dried tofu products had been found to contain excessive levels of preservatives.
Unfortunately, the products from the five blacklisted Japanese prefectures, apparently imported with fake labels of origin, show that the government still has a long way to go to prove that it has developed a new mind-set and is able to make good on its promises.
After the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Taiwan banned foodstuffs from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba prefectures amid fears of contamination from radiation leaks. That some food produced in those areas was still able to make its way into Taiwan shows that the government’s safety net has major holes and that the legal penalties are not enough to deter such illicit activity.
Prosecutors have launched criminal investigations to determine who was at fault for allowing potentially problematic products to reach the market — the Japanese exporters or Taiwanese importers — but the issue of counterfeit origin labels raises many questions.
How long have such practices been going on? What loopholes in the legal system are being exploited? Most importantly, has Taiwan demanded that food imported from Japan must have official radiation-free warranties and government-issued place of origin labels?
The legal threshold for radiation levels in foodstuffs differs in Taiwan and Japan and the two nations are reportedly negotiating over regulations requiring nine categories of food products imported from Japan to carry prefecture-specific labels of origin. Nevertheless, businesses should not have any reason to import questionable products.
Regrettably, however, some companies have failed to learn anything from the food safety scandals in recent years.
It is not news to the government that the public wants guarantees of food safety, because an assurance that food is safe is a basic human right.
The government’s pledge on food safety should be more than a “to do” list. It should be an embodiment of will and action in stemming further food safety breaches, supported by strict enforcement of food safety laws and heavy penalties for violators.
The government should consider stricter regulations on imported Japanese food items or even new regulations to require production area certificates for all food imports from Japan, as well as radiation safety certificates for other products. In the long term, the government needs to follow international standards to safeguard the nation’s food supplies.
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