Prosecutors recently charged Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co chairman Kao Cheng-li (高振利) with fraud and with violating the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法), offenses for which they are seeking a heavy sentence.
The Chang Chi food scandal has been covered up for a long time and before it was exposed, inspectors were reportedly stopped from inspecting the manufacturer by outside forces on multiple occasions. Prosecutors should therefore not only pursue a fraud conviction, they should also include corruption among the charges.
Article 47 of the act stipulates that if a manufacturer refuses to allow controls or inspections of its products to be carried out, declines to provide data on the products or gives false information, they can be instantly issued a fine by the health authorities. In extreme cases, the authorities are also authorized by the act to order a company to suspend operations or close down, or revoke its business registration.
Despite this, administrative fines are set at between NT$30,000 and NT$3 million (U$1,000 and US$100,000) — an amount that is clearly far too low given that a company could earn tens, or even hundreds, of millions of New Taiwan dollars by violating food safety regulations.
If a company refuses to be inspected, the health authorities have no other way of enforcing the regulations than to repeatedly issue fines. Officials have no way of determining whether the food products in question contain illegal additives that have a direct impact on public health, or whether the company should be told to suspend operations or close down. This clearly highlights the restrictions to administrative investigations.
To solve the problem of companies refusing to allow inspections, inspectors must be allowed to report to a prosecutor and apply for a search warrant from a court authorizing the immediate seizure of all relevant materials. This would prevent the continued dissemination of harmful products.
However, soliciting a search warrant is a process that often takes a long time, which means that the opportunity to ascertain evidence may be lost. To simplify this process, prosecutorial offices must strengthen their relations with the health authorities as quickly as possible.
Food safety scares are continuing to emerge and create panic, so it is now necessary for district prosecutors’ offices to station a prosecutor with local governments who can integrate resources by taking direct command of such situations and directing every effort toward attacking illegal activities that are compromising food safety.
In addition to exposing the inappropriately low levels of fines for food safety violators, the recent scandals have also made it clear that the health authorities are unable to protect the public. The question of why the inspections of Chang Chi were repeatedly blocked and the exposure of its illegal activities delayed after they were discovered makes one wonder whether there is collusion between the government and businesses.
Given this situation, the Agency Against Corruption should initiate an investigation into any corrupt activities, and even if the agency does not find evidence corruption, it should put an end to the constant occurrence of improper lobbying to permanently eliminate any corrupt structures in the background.
One thing the public can be sure of is that if the only goal is to pursue companies for breaking the law, the Chang Chi case will not be the last food safety scare to emerge in Taiwan.
Wu Ching-chin is an assistant professor in Aletheia University’s financial and economic law department.
Translated by Perry Svensson