Another day, another food scandal. As even established brands are pulled from the shelves, beleaguered consumers feel that they can no longer trust producers, manufacturers or the government agencies to protect their health and safety.
Two years ago Taiwan was rocked by the di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or DEHP scandal, in which plasticizers had been added as clouding agents to drink ingredients and bottled beverages. The scandal shook many Taiwanese — who had been feeling smug since China’s melamine scandal exploded in 2008 — out of their complacency and the notion that such shoddy practices could not happen here. Even though some of the melamine-tainted milk power had been imported into this country, the flaws were clearly seen as being the result of China’s corrupt system.
This year, the adulterated oil scandal, which widens daily, came just weeks after a flavor-additive scandal damaged a prominent bakery chain and a domestic organic rice brand turned out to be a mix of local and imported rice. There have also been complaints that eggs marketed as free-range are not, while at the end of last month Taipei City’s Department of Health seized imported beef sold to a major restaurant chain after samples were found to contain residues of the cattle feed additive zilpaterol.
The most worrying aspects of these recent scandals are that so many of the companies involved had earned Good Hygiene Practice (GHP) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certifications and that some were brought to light by whistle-blowers, not inspections and testing.
For years consumers have been told to look for the GMP stamp to ensure they were purchasing the best quality items. This is clearly no longer the case. Yet despite the evidence to the contrary, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and top officials continue to tell the public that the GMP audits are reliable and the certification helps ensure food safety.
An official with the ministry’s Industrial Development Bureau insisted on Oct. 22 that GMP regulations are strict and that all testing is conducted according to the law. She noted that GMP certificates that had been pulled from 17 of an edible oil factory’s products were pulled because of false advertising — the oils were not as pure as advertised — not because they contained harmful ingredients.
Saying that all testing conforms to legal requirements is meaningless if so many adulterated or tainted products are able to evade detection.
Even the GMP Association has been damaged. Association chairman Wei Ying-chung (魏應充) — the chairman of Ting Hsin International Group and Wei Chuan Foods Corp — announced on Tuesday that he would resign the association post after Wei Chuan was swept up in the Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co oil scandal. On Thursday, Wei and Wei Chuan Foods’ general manager were indicted over allegations the company had produced and marketed adulterated oil.
While they are not the first, and certainly will not be the last food company executives to face charges, prosecuting businesspeople and fining their firms for breaking the law is only a partial solution.
Consumers can check for labels, but only for what they buy in a store or market. What about the food bought in restaurants and institutions or from food processors? There is no way to tell the quality of every ingredient, which is why having a well regulated and well-functioning testing and inspection system is crucial. The present system has too many cracks.
A complete overhaul of the nation’s food regulatory, safety and labeling systems is needed as well as changes to the laws governing food safety and manufacturing. Too many of the current quality-control systems were designed by the manufacturers themselves; testing should not only be done in-house, but by government facilities and third-party laboratories. The new system should encompass farmers, producers, manufacturers as well as importers and exporters. This is the only way to regain consumers’ trust.