Yet another food scandal has hit Taiwan, adding to the plasticizers in drinks scare, Top Pot Bakery’s lies about not using artificial flavorings and Sunsuivi Organic Rice being mixed with inferior, imported rice.
The most recent scandal involves cooking oil packaged by Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co. Chang Chi’s olive oil has no association with olives, there are no peanuts involved in the making of its peanut oil and its chili oil has no link to chilies. Instead, these flavors were achieved using artificial additives, prompting doubts about if they are safe to cook with.
Chang Chi does not have a very large share of the cooking oil market, but its products are sold at a low price and are therefore attractive to low and middle-income consumers. Even more disconcerting is that they are sold in bulk at discounted prices to processed food manufacturers, restaurants, self-service buffets, lunchbox outlets and kitchens in schools and military mess halls. This means that it does not matter how much care one takes in buying cooking oil from the supermarket because one has virtually no control over the quality of oil used in processed food or in restaurants.
The Cabinet responded to the oil scandal by calling the relevant authorities to a special meeting on food safety and announcing a raft of food safety control measures. It has also promised severe punishments for those involved in the oil scandal. Chang Chi’s and its owner’s financial assets have been frozen and are being audited, and the company is to be dealt with in line with the recently amended Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法).
The government is also planning to set up a joint task force on food safety checks and bans, as well as revise regulations governing food sanitation and safety controls to require that manufacturers carry out sample testing in-house or at a third-party lab and reinforce manufacturer self-regulation.
According to the act, Chang Chi may be facing a fine of more than NT$28 million (US$952,000). While this sounds like an astronomical figure, it is small change compared with the more than NT$700 million in profit that the company would have made from its blended oil and so is hardly an effective deterrent.
A precedent for this type of case was set by the class-action suit brought against companies using plasticizers in drinks. The suit called for NT$7.8 billion in compensation, but the courts only awarded NT$1.2 million, which is a cause for concern in terms of the government’s and the court’s ability to seek compensation for crimes. If sanctions are to be a deterrent, they should not only involve punitive fines, but also seek the return of illegally gained profits.
Chang Chi’s wrongdoing was not discovered through random checks by the authorities, nor was it discovered because the products failed to meet the nation’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards. Instead Chang Chi was exposed because someone reported the company to Taipei’s Department of Health, which fined it NT$40,000 in October last year, and because Changhua County’s Public Health Bureau, after receiving further complaints in June, referred the firm to prosecutors.
Had these whistle-blowers not come forward, Chang Chi’s oils would have passed government inspections and received GMP certification. The government must improve food safety tests so each item and the whole production process are inspected, because if any loopholes exist, unscrupulous people will find a way to exploit them.
Chemical additives such as plasticizers and artificial flavoring can easily fool tests and it is not easy to identify illegal constituents in products unless inspectors are testing for specific items. If the government wants to protect society from further food scares, the simplest way is to increase rewards for whistle-blowers. If people with inside knowledge have more incentive to report illegal activities, ensuring food safety will be much easier.