The Taipei District Court on March 25 ruled on the 2014 substandard cooking oil case involving Wei Chuan Foods Corp (味全食品), a subsidiary of Ting Hsin International Group (頂新集團). The court delivered a guilty verdict against Wei Chuan Foods, Ting Hsin senior executive Wei Ying-chun (魏應充) and several company employees.
In contrast, the Changhua District Court in November last year found Ting Hsin Group and Wei not guilty in a parallel case relating to substandard cooking oil products.
The Taipei court found the defendants guilty of defrauding consumers and adulterating food products. The court, not limiting its ruling to a key clause of the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation (食品安全衛生管理法) on “endangering or causing harm to public health,” said that the adulteration of food products already constitutes a violation of the law.
Wei’s lawyer released a statement criticizing the ruling, saying: “The Taipei District Court believes that even if a [food product] does not pose a risk to human health and adulteration occurred for economic reasons, there should still be a case for prosecution under the Food Safety Act. The court has exceeded its jurisdiction and infringed upon human rights.”
The Taipei District Court responded by saying: “If, for example, a manufacturer states on the label of its product ‘shark’s fin,’ but in fact it has used mung bean starch, would the consumer find that acceptable?”
From the adulterated sesame oil produced by Flavor Full Foods (富味鄉), to the colorant-containing low-cost oils supplied by Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co (大統長基) or the adulterated oil supplied by Ting Hsin Group, where does the crux of the problem lie when it comes to the Food Safety Act?
Put simply, the goal of legal protection and punishment in cases of adulterated food products and counterfeit products, at a minimum, includes the protection of three important consumer rights: financial, health and freedom of choice.
The protection of these three rights exist concurrently: It is not simply a question of preventing harm to the public’s health.
First, the financial rights of consumers and market competition must be protected. On the one hand, when low-cost palm oil is mixed with more expensive olive oil — or when inferior-quality rice is used to adulterate more expensive rice — this is cheating consumers out of their money through the use of false labeling designed to mislead the purchaser into believing they have bought a competitively priced, high-quality product.
On the other hand, when palm oil is passed off as olive oil and sold in the marketplace, a consumer, comparing this to an oil product accurately labeled as palm oil, as well as to genuine — and therefore more expensive — olive oil, would find the “counterfeit olive oil” more attractive. This constitutes unfair competition.
Therefore, adulterated products are not just cheating consumers out of their money, but they are detrimental to the proper operation of the market. This is an area often overlooked in judicial rulings on food safety cases in the nation. Although adulterating food products and selling counterfeit goods can be prosecuted as fraud, it does not capture the full extent of the crime. Put another way, if it is simply an issue of fraud, there would have been no need for Britain to enact the world’s first food safety legislation in 1860: the Adulteration of Food and Drink Act.
Second, there is the issue of legal protection for the health rights of consumers. As the saying goes: “You are what you eat.” The food we consume has an impact on our health; this needs no further explanation. During the Third Reich era, Germany enacted its first body of food safety criminal law, which placed importance on legal protection of the public’s health rights.
Having evolved over a period of 100 years, the core focus of the legislation now centers on what is the correct time for the criminal law system to kick in in order to protect the public: Should it be only when there is concrete evidence that a health problem exists or earlier than that, when the authorities suspect there might be a danger to public health? Or perhaps the authorities should directly place a ban on any mislabeled or counterfeit food products?
When Taiwanese legislators amended the food safety act in 2013, in light of lessons learned from previous failures of the legal system to bring to justice violators of the food safety law, the clause “... and may be sufficient to be harmful to human health” was removed from Article 49, which sets out the terms of imprisonment and fines applicable to the crimes of adulteration and counterfeiting. Legislators emphasized the motivation for doing this was to intimidate unscrupulous manufacturers and to protect consumers.
Third — and most crucially — adulterated and counterfeit food products deprive consumers of the freedom of choice. This issue concerns more than just public hygiene, money or health — aside from medicine, food and drink are the only traded commodities that enter into and are assimilated by the human body.
If you purchase a notebook and the number of pages or the weight of the paper is not as advertised, you have been cheated. However, you are not going to eat the notebook — and this is where the difference lies.
Put simply, when a person makes a choice about purchasing an item of food or drink, it is more than just a decision of personal preference: multiple considerations of morality, culture, faith and religion also come into play.
One example is meat or spicy food products that are passed off as Buddhist-friendly vegetarian food.
When a vegetarian is misled into buying and eating a lunch box that has used meat or spicy ingredients in its preparation — just as if dog meat is passed off as beef to European consumers — while the consumer might have suffered monetary loss and harm to their health, the key point is that the severity of the crime is in fact many degrees higher.
Choices about food involve life philosophy (such as vegetarians who chose not to eat meat for environmental reasons or because they do not wish to take an animal’s life), cultural respect (such as traditional Taiwanese farmers who do not eat beef) and religious piety (such as Muslims who do not eat pork).
Each person has their own personal, subjective set of values. Can it be right that we allow unscrupulous businesses to trample over an individual’s personal beliefs in the pursuit of profit?
The Changhua court’s not guilty verdict in the Ting Hsin Group case has been the subject of much criticism. The main problem can be divided into two aspects.
First, the judges presiding over the case narrowly defined the food safety act as a legal protection for the health rights of consumers while neglecting to take into account other concurrent protections, as mentioned above: This is also true of the Flavor Full Foods case.
Second, because the judges examined the case from a narrow perspective of health-based legal protections and used “contra legem” as the basis to further narrow their interpretation of the law, the crimes of adulteration and counterfeiting can only be applied to individuals who can be proved to have caused harm to the health of consumers. This then threw up a non-issue of opposing burdens of proof for prosecutors and judges to contend with.
Since the judges had already made a decision regarding their jurisdiction and legislative authority in the case, this resulted in consumer protection being thrown out the window.
The case has shaken consumer confidence in the nation’s judicial system. It is a case without a winner; everyone involved has come off badly.
To sum up, in contrast to the not guilty verdicts in the food safety case against Flavor Full Foods and the case against Ting Hsin rendered by the Changhua District Court over substandard oil products, the small legal step taken by the Taipei District Court with its ruling in the case against Wei Chuan Foods was both difficult and valuable, and offers a close view of the problems that lie ahead on the long road toward food safety.
Lin Yu-hsiung is a professor in the College of Law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Edward Jones
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
An outrageous dismissal of the exemplary Taiwanese fight against COVID-19 has been perpetrated by the EU. There is no excuse. I presume that everyone who reads the Taipei Times knows that the EU has excluded Taiwan from its so-called “safe list,” which permits citizens unhindered travel to and from the countries of the EU. As the EU does not feel that it needs to explain the character of this exclusive list, perhaps we should examine it ourselves in some detail. There are 14 nations on the list that have been chosen as safe countries of origin and safe countries of destination for
Filmmakers in Taiwan used to struggle when it came to telling a story that could resonate internationally. Things started to change when the 2017 drama series The Teenage Psychic (通靈少女), a collaboration between HBO Asia and Taiwanese Public Television Service (PTS), became a huge hit not just locally, but also internationally. The coming-of-age story was adapted from the 2013 PTS-produced short film The Busy Young Psychic (神算). Entirely filmed in Taiwan, the Mandarin-language series even made it on HBO’s streaming platforms in the US. It is proof that a well-told Taiwanese story can absolutely win the hearts and minds of hard-to-please