Safe food has become a ‘luxury’

By Tan Wei-en and Tsai Yu-tai 譚偉恩,蔡育岱  / 

Sat, Nov 02, 2013 - Page 8

Technology, trade liberalization and the pursuit of continuous economic growth have caused agriculture to become closely connected with industry. Possible benefits of this trend include increased market supply and relatively cheap food, but an inevitable accompanying risk is that food safety will be sacrificed.

During the past five years, news about unsafe food has kept cropping up all over the world. This is true of developing and developed countries. Examples include US hamburgers tainted with the toxigenic O157:H7 strain of Escherichia coli bacteria, Chinese milk powder adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine, food poisoning at top Danish restaurant Noma and South Korea’s ban on imports of radiation-contaminated food from Japan.

As for Taiwan, it has recently experienced scares over rice and cooking oil dishonestly mixed with cheaper ingredients.

The government and public hardly show any concern for these food safety problems until they are exposed by media reports. This unspoken political phenomenon has for a long time been concealed in daily eating and drinking habits.

A common feature of all these incidents is the question of economic interests. Safety crises are increasingly occurring in the food market. Like climate change, food safety hazards have become, and will continue to be, a normal state of affairs that all people must face. Why is this so?

First, modern industrialized food production systems are the main threat to food hygiene. For example, surging demand for meat products around the world has led producers to speed up production in pursuit of higher profits. This has led to widespread use of improper methods of rearing and feeding, raising the chances of bacteria or parasites being present in meat products.

Second, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has become commonplace for fruit and vegetable crops and many producers are even starting to use biotechnology to improve farm crops’ resistance to natural hazards and pests.

Such unnatural methods of production cause varying degrees of harm to consumers’ health, and they can increase the risk of cancer. Industrialized production also has an impact on land and water resources and on species diversity. It greatly damages the outlook for a sustainable environment and indirectly threatens the security of people’s lives.

Third, consumers have many things to consider when choosing what food to buy. Price, appearance and taste are the basic considerations. Celebrity spokespeople and convenience of location are among the many factors that influence people’s food purchase decisions. In industrialized markets driven by capital, these factors are generally controlled by big domestic and international corporations.

Taking things further, consumers’ freedom of choice is only surface deep. In reality, unequal access to information means that consumers have a limited range of choices. Since production by non-industrial methods is generally limited in scale and relatively time-consuming, foods produced in this way tend to be more expensive.

Furthermore, the great majority of non-industrial producers are small-scale farmers, as opposed to agricultural and livestock corporations. These small players are at a great disadvantage compared with big business when it comes to packaging, sales channels and commercial advertising.

As a result, their farm products are not easy to sell in general markets or, even if the opportunity avails itself, it is hard for them to compete with industrially produced farm products and processed foods.

The rules of the game are that the fittest survive and the less fit are eliminated. Consequently, food produced by non-industrial methods are getting pushed off the scene bit-by-bit. Even before consumers have realized how very limited their choices are, they face increased risk with regard to food safety because of the growing chance of encountering food-borne diseases and chemical additives.

These things are hard to change because the problem has to do with the structure of economic markets. Consumers are disadvantaged in their access to information, and businesses that have the data at their fingertips have little motivation to provide consumers with full and transparent information.

Perhaps the government should play the role of manager, but such a role will be restricted by its unwillingness to interfere in the market and a lack of political benefits. Consequently, it is usually only after food safety incidents are brought to light and become a focus of attention that the government takes action to placate the public. This tendency is another key factor behind the never-ending series of food scares.

There may be some ways to counterbalance or reduce the negative impact that the economic structure has on food safety, but until they are implemented, people have to accept the reality that, in this industrial age, safe food has become something of a luxury.

Unless consumers are willing and able to buy relatively high-priced foods, such as organic rice and vegetables grown without agricultural chemicals, or food made by hand by family businesses on a limited scale, they have little chance of getting away from risky food.

If market demand for organic and similar foods starts to grow, profit-seeking businesses will surely find ways of getting in on the trend. When that happens, it is foreseeable that some companies will use novel and alluring marketing techniques to dishonestly sell healthy-looking foods that are not really what they seem.

Tan Wei-en is a member of the International Association for Food Protection’s Asian food safety program. Tsai Yu-tai is a professor in the Institute of Strategic Studies and International Affairs at National Chung Cheng University.

Translated by Julian Clegg