Sun, May 29, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Better ways to improve food safety oversight

By Sheu Hui-yu 許惠玉

Currently, when it comes to food safety, most problems are attributed to insufficient inspections, and when those problems are tackled, most effort is spent on the improvement of testing and data analysis.

However, spending a lot of money and employing a great deal of manpower on testing will not provide a long-term solution, because the ingredients and problems of food and food additives are innumerable. It is next to impossible to test every ingredient. Attempting to do so would only waste national resources. An examination of the food safety incidents in recent years will reveal the following blind spots that arise when testing is the only guarantee of food safety.

First, food safety testing is limited to certain categories. Even if more categories are added, after a while they would become regular procedures; people would assume that as long as the procedures are followed, the food is safe to eat. However, that mentality could actually prevent people from discovering new problems. Moreover, problems such as ingredient spoilage and expiration can be difficult to discover during back-end testing.

Second, with every regulation, there are loopholes. However sophisticated testing technology becomes, it cannot prevent people from devising product formulas specifically to pass certain testing categories. For instance, tainted milk was produced with the addition of melamine to increase the nitrogen percentage in the milk and pass protein-related testing. Another example would be the tainted oil produced by Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co (大統長基), which devised a formula that contained a percentage of fatty acid in its tainted oil close to the percentage of fatty acid in untainted oil, thereby making it difficult for health authorities to produce evidence it was tainted, despite numerous tests.

Third, testing can serve as “health management” of food products, but it cannot reflect the quality and nutritional value that the products contain. Products such as peanut oil that contains peanut essence instead of real peanuts or milk that contains high percentages of maltodextrin mislead consumers into thinking that these products have the ingredients, nutrition and qualities that they should have.

Although such products are not necessarily hazardous to human health, they are mislabeled; consumers think that they are getting nutrition from these products, but they are only spending money on empty calories and additives.

Although it is necessary to perform testing, it is time-consuming. Hence it should be used supplementarily. Food safety should be addressed by managing its source: the ingredients. A comprehensive oversight mechanism from the farms to the table should be established.

“Honest labeling” should be thoroughly enforced. Complete and transparent product labeling means that food manufacturers would have to produce evidence of their product qualities, which facilitates oversight and enables consumers to make informed decisions that suit their needs.

Testing should be done by going right to the source, employing vertical testing from upstream to downstream. There do not have to be many samples, but it is necessary to actually visit upstream factories, cross-examining the data and information of the product producers and that of the ingredient suppliers.

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