The nation has recently been hit by a string of food safety scandals, including problems with contaminated starch, soy sauce, zongzi (粽子, glutinous rice dumplings), altered expiration dates and with a well-known organic brown rice brand testing positive for pesticide residue.
These incidents have not only damaged public trust in the government’s ability to assure food safety, but have also left everyone at a loss as to what is safe to eat.
Some people are starting to plant their own fruit and vegetables, make their own flour products and cut down on eating out to ensure their safety.
All this has happened in the two years following the plasticizer scandal that shook the nation.
However, the problem remains the same, with upstream suppliers using contaminated ingredients that they pass on to middle and downstream companies, which use these ingredients widely, perhaps unknowingly.
In the end, it is consumers who get hurt the most because they have no idea how many unsafe food products they have consumed.
Although the legislature’s quick amendment of the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) to increase fines and penalties may have some effect — although compound additives are not regulated — it has not offered any additional protection for consumers that have already been affected.
All these people can do is curse their bad luck, because it is difficult to provide any direct evidence of the effect of these inferior food products.
To put consumers’ minds at ease, the government now requires retailers to obtain safety guarantees from manufacturers of eight major product groups containing starch and to display these safety guarantees where consumers can easily see them.
Forcing downstream retailers to guarantee the safety of their suppliers’ products is problematic and not entirely reasonable.
For example, the starch that the manufacturer sent for testing might be different from the product that it provides stores with, or some suppliers even stick forged documentation on their products to appear that they have passed the required tests.
Recently, the Homemaker’s Union Consumer’s Co-op initiated a test of 29 products containing starch.
Two of these products still came up positive for maleic anhydride, despite manufacturers providing safety guarantees.
Though stores hang up signs and reports stating that their products have passed the necessary safety tests, consumers have remained nervous and sales have failed to pick up again.
Similar things happened frequently in the past during the testing of agricultural and fish products.
Later, it was required that the testing bodies or organizations entrusted by the government send staff to take samples, seal them and send them in for testing. These measures eventually solved the problems.
Apart from dealing with manufacturers involved in the forgery of documents in accordance with the law, the government should also revise the current standard operating procedures for taking samples for testing and increase the related penalties as soon as possible.
This would help to prevent manufacturers from taking advantage of any loopholes.
In the face of the current high risks associated with food additives, experts have suggested that consumers purchase pure, unprocessed foods and cut down on eating processed food products.
Not only can eating more natural and less processed foods help consumers avoid contact with industrial materials like plasticizers or maleic anhydride, it is also beneficial to the promotion of domestic agriculture.
However, much more has to be done before the nation’s food products can be considered truly safe.
Taiwan still has occasional problems with food sanitation such as fruit and vegetables containing excessive amounts of pesticide, fish containing residues of antibiotics and heavy metals and the issue of dead pork — meat from pigs long deceased.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received much criticism for its lack of responsiveness and the processes it has used in following up on these harmful food products.
This has been the case in light of recent responses from governments in the EU, Japan and South Korea.
These governments became concerned when an unapproved genetically modified strain of wheat was found to be produced in the US state of Oregon.
The Japanese government not only increased testing, but immediately stopped the importation of Western White wheat produced in Oregon — moves that South Korea followed.
In Taiwan, the FDA only demanded that the US offer an explanation and complete investigations as soon as possible.
The Taiwanese government did not tighten border controls, making it difficult to assure food safety for worried consumers.
Just as with financial supervision, the supervision of food safety must be constant. The government cannot keep citing a lack of manpower and funds as an excuse for not doing so, nor can it expect to rely solely on the ethics of manufacturers.
What is needed to restore consumer confidence is joint cooperation between the government, manufacturers and the public, with the government providing timely information and showing that it has the ability to solve problems.
The Taiwanese government should pay closer attention to good measures such as the US Food and Drug Administration’s interactive Web-based system FDA-iRISK, the letter-grading system for restaurants being promoted by the New York City government, and the EU Risk Assessment system.
Taiwanese government agencies must think more about how they should go about conducting controls at the source, make more regular samples of foods, establish warning mechanisms, ensure the safety of foods purchased online and increase incentives for people to report unscrupulous manufacturers.
They should also come up with concrete methods and put these into action.
The only way the government can stop similar food safety scares from recurring is showing resolve and determination.
Government officials cannot just demand that the public avoid consuming toxic food products.
After all, providing the public with safe food products is a basic responsibility of any government.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Drew Cameron