For a nation that has won international acclaim for the diversity of its cuisine and has built much of its tourist economy around its agri-culinary culture, a remarkable inertia exists in dealing with the growing and glaring contradiction between the mythos and reality of food production and preparation.
This month’s fipronil-tainted eggs scandal is the most recent of dozens of domestic health scares in recent years.
While politicians have learned the advantage of campaigning to restrict a possibly dangerous foreign food import, be it beef or pork for example, they are more passive over the obvious violations at home.
Reactions in these cases seem limited to asking how such incidents could happen and requesting not to paint every producer with the same brush.
Responses to the fipronil incident said that poultry farmers have limited insecticide knowledge and that the government should increase training.
Even when people put others at risk through their own ignorance, short-sightedness or greed, it seems that it is never their fault and that the government must shoulder the burden.
Violations are always the result of “a few bad apples” in the industry and not indicative of a culturally institutionalized contempt for consumers’ health, as evidenced by placing profitability over basic food standards and occupational safety.
If lax standards or unenforced regulations regarding the sanitary conditions of, and non-toxic ingredients in, food production are one of Taiwan’s “dirty secrets,” another is the unhygienic environment and methods used to prepare and serve food.
Reports emerged this week that 22 Taipei Summer Universiade staff suffered diarrhea after eating lunch boxes from a restaurant.
An inspection of the premises found trash cans without lids and ingredients left on the ground. The kitchen staff did not wear sanitary caps, and ventilation fans in the dining space were not clean.
From old lunch boxes donated to funeral homes being resold to elementary schools and food waste from large restaurants being picked off the street and reused to mass incidents of food poisoning or the use of tainted, illegally relabeled or out-of-date products, Taiwan has a toxic food culture it appears unwilling to regard as endemic or to systematically address.
A small island nation should in theory be highly cognizant of the need for a holistic approach to food production as a component of environmental protection and sustainability.
Every day hundreds of thousands of diners are handed a meal box in a plastic bag to carry away and a pair of bleached chopsticks.
When questioned, vendors inevitably cite customer convenience for automatically dispensing one-use plastic bags that will then have to be burned, buried or eventually find their way into the immediate environment, or the ocean.
While the government has signaled a rule change on the use of plastic bags to start next year, these measures are too timid and piecemeal to sufficiently or rapidly change food culture and operating methods.
A complete ban on all plastic bags for most everyday uses, and especially for food packaging, could and should be instituted and enforced with high penalties.
Taiwan could then market itself internationally as a plastic bag-free nation. If President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration is seeking ways to make Taiwan visible in the international arena, then transforming the nation into a world leader of environmental protection is not only necessary in our Anthropocene period of rapid, harsh, and devastating climate change, but also good for business.
Imagine the government being able to market Wanli Beach (萬里) in New Taipei City as a tropical haven for travelers rather than the waste-strewn Pacific garbage patch that its waters and shoreline are.
Even if the seas and beaches are clear of plastic waste, tourists will be less inclined to enjoy the full smorgasbord of Taiwan’s culinary offerings if they worry they will need health insurance to do so.
A nation that not only places food at the heart of its culture, but also markets this internationally should establish a regulatory framework to maintain the highest standards of sanitation, and the infrastructure and personnel required to enforce these standards rigorously and without exception.
Local governments should be empowered to provide education and enforce “integrated policy” between departments responsible for food production, food preparation, and health services.
The Environmental Protection Administration, Council of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the Ministry of Transport and Communications should be working together to transform Taiwan within a set period into a nation of clean air, soil and water, and organic food.
The government should engage in a national and ongoing public relations campaign to shift the nation’s consciousness toward lowering energy consumption, establishing good practices in food preparation, from factory to kitchen, and reducing and minimizing waste and the use of harmful chemicals, ingredients or practices in all aspects of daily life.
The government will also have to admit and confront the uncomfortable truth that many of the common health and environmental problems the nation faces relate directly to the poor preparation and over-consumption of meat and fish, as well as the environmental cost of producing and transporting these products.
Whether the government is serious about combating low-cost, low-standard, high-toxicity food culture that harms the environment and residents’ health will be seen when it has the courage to enjoin associations of fishermen and farmers to collaborate in achieving a reduced output, but one of much higher quality.
How successful it will be depends on its persistence and on whether it can offer an easily understood and effective package of policies and reform measures that motivate the associations to cooperate.
Taiwanese are directly and indirectly paying a high price, both financially and in terms of their health, for the privilege and convenience of eating cheap, quick-to-consume or take-away, sugar and fat-rich, processed food. Even food with fresh ingredients is tainted by being prepared in unsanitary conditions.
Historically, Taiwan is a nation of farmers and fishermen whose products supported a healthy, primarily plant-based diet with occasional meat consumption. Agriculture may never again be the dominant industry, but rests the heart of the nation’s health.
A nation will put everything aside to collectively fight a war or respond to a devastating natural disaster. It is time that the government recognizes that food, health and the environment are in crisis, and that all are related.
It is not just a few bad eggs. Taiwan can and must make cleaning up food a central element in its drive to achieving an environmentally sustainable nation.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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