Law failing to protect public health

By Chang Kuo-tsai 張國財  / 

Sun, Nov 03, 2013 - Page 8

Rice-less rice noodles, tomato-free ketchup, fruit juice without fruit, mislabeled cooking oils — even if such products are not toxic when ingested, the unscrupulous companies who make them are still guilty of profligate profiteering.

However, if these companies add toxic substances of any kind to their products that, when ingested, can lead to liver cancer or be otherwise fatal, or rob the consumer of the chance of having children by rendering them infertile, then that is a different matter. If denial of life for the sake of making a fast buck is not murder, then it is impossible to think what such an action can be called.

In August 1987, an extortionist — a “Monster with 21 Faces” copycat inspired by the Glico Morinaga case in Japan — was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for attempting to blackmail a major food company in Taiwan by lacing their products with poison. In October of that year, another extortionist tried to blackmail the Uni-President Group by putting poison in the company’s soybean milk and was put behind bars for two years.

In May 2005, the “energy-drink poisoner,” Wang Chin-chan (王進展), laced Bullwild and Paolyta B drinks with cyanide, placing 11 tainted bottles in different convenience store refrigerators, causing one fatality and making four people ill. Wang was originally given the death penalty for murder, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison on appeal since he had written “I am toxic, do not drink me” warnings on the tainted bottles.

The reason that these individuals either got off relatively lightly or were able to avoid the death sentence is because they had either not actually poisoned the products or had informed the companies they were attempting to blackmail of the poisoning.

There are also several examples of “mass poisonings,” in which one can see bureaucratic complicity, negligible compensation payouts and piddling fines. What one never sees is the punishment fitting the crime in these serial offenses cases, nor does one see these criminals being prosecuted for anything more serious than profiteering, such as murder.

In October last year, the Taipei City Department of Health was informed that Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co was using cottonseed oil in its cooking oils. The central government’s Department of Health — the precursor of the Ministry of Health and Welfare — commissioned research into whether the labeling of blended oils on the market complied with national standards. This study revealed that the composition of fatty acids in Chang Chi’s olive oil was highly irregular.

So why did it take an entire year to inform innocent consumers of these findings? Why was it not dealt with immediately, to prevent the 23 million people living in this country from using this adulterated oil for another year? If this is not an example of homicide through bureaucratic negligence, it is hard to imagine what is.

When the plasticizers in drinks scandal exploded two years ago, the Consumers’ Foundation brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a group of consumers against the 37 companies involved, suing them for NT$7.87 billion (US$267.5 million) in damages. The New Taipei City (新北市) District Court recently ruled that 18 of these companies were liable to pay consumers a joint compensation payout of NT$1.27 million, with Young Energy Source Mineral Water having to pay the smallest amount, a nominal NT$9.

Rulings like this are tantamount to telling unscrupulous companies that they can get away with adulterating their products with virtual impunity. After all, if they get caught, they will only have to pay a few tens of thousands of New Taiwan dollars.

In addition, Uni-President, which had been using plasticizers in its products for more than 10 years, was able to cast itself as a victim, getting NT$73.4 million in compensation — a figure 60 times higher than that received by the consumers who had been unknowingly swallowing these plasticizers. Where is the justice or fairness in that?

The owner of Chin Kuo Wang, the company responsible for producing the plasticizers, was sent to jail for 14 months for violating the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法). Chin Tong, which sold plasticizers to Yu Shen Chemical, was fined NT$16 million and its owner sent to prison for an eight-year stretch. Yu Shen was fined NT$24 million and the husband-and-wife team that own it were given custodial sentences of 15 and 12 years respectively for fraud, in addition to being fined NT$150,000 and NT$120,000 for each year of their respective sentences.

This shows that fines measured in the tens of thousands are meted out to punish people for crimes that generate the perpetrators gains measured in the hundreds of millions. If this is not encouraging people to break the law, then what would?

The guy who laced Bullwild was handed a life sentence, but the people who made and sold plasticizers that could have damaged the health of 23 million people can look forward to enjoying their freedom after a few years behind bars.

What is the law going to do about Chang Chi and Flavor Full Food, companies that have been flogging cottonseed oil to Taiwanese and jeopardizing their fertility? Where is the accountability to the general public? Where is the sense of proportionality, if the more people whose health you put at risk, the less time you spend in jail?

The law is not bringing to bear clauses on serial crimes, or making the punishment fit the crime. Instead it is dilly-dallying on profiteering clauses in the Act Governing Food Sanitation instead of prosecuting these criminals for murder, for potentially poisoning the entire population of this country. Whose side is the law on, anyway? That of the criminals, or that of the victims?

Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired National Hsinchu University of Education associate professor and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.

Translated by Paul Cooper