Taiwan has reacted to the Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory Co adulterated cooking oils scandal in its usual way. Just as with other food scares in the past, as soon as the story blows over, all transgressions are forgotten, until the next wave of crises. Who knows where this will all end?
There was, for a time, a lot of talk about clamping down on the transgressors with severe sanctions. Several legislators proposed setting up a food police, as if they wanted Taiwan to return to being some kind of a police state, while others demanded detailed labeling of all the additives included in the food, consigning manufacturers to having to include explanatory booklets in the packaging of their products.
There was also the preposterous suggestion that there be some kind of food quality safety fund. Such a move would mean giving the Ministry of Health and Welfare — which thus far has been singularly useless in ensuring food safety — its own little treasure chest, as a way to encourage its abuse of its powers and its inertia: The more unscrupulous companies were found to be selling dodgy goods, the more the fund would grow.
The demand by the Hualien County Government to pull all products by Wei Chuan, Chang Chi, Flavor Full Foods and Formosa Oilseed Processing from supermarket shelves was reminiscent of the methods used during the early Republican period warlord era in China. Even more ridiculous was how the health ministry rushed out an announcement of more than 100 kinds of certified oils, forgetting the government’s duty to guarantee all legitimate retail goods. This kind of stewardship only adds to the chaos.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese will just have to endure all thgis again when the next crisis hits, like a reluctant audience strapped to their seats, eyelids prised open, while the same unbearable performance starts up again.
That these proposals are being made brings up questions about how sophisticated we are being about this, as it seems we are completely incapable of solving the long-term problem of collusion between business, government and academia that is behind these food scandals. The answer to breaking up this ring lies not in levying severe sanctions, which will actually only bring the ring tighter together, but in simply making sure that the existing system works properly.
There is already a set of laws and regulations in place that are perfectly adequate to prevent food crises from being endemic in ordinary commercial activity.
All normal commercial activity depends on a fully functional, comprehensive fiscal policy and taxation system. Manufacturers are expected to have clear and accurate accounts of what comes in and what goes out, as well as what they have in storage, as this information is required for commodity tax purposes, even if a given product is exempted from commodity tax. This applies to anything imported from, or exported, overseas, as well as to goods sold on the domestic market. Everything that goes into a bottle of cooking oil, including the main ingredients, any additives used and the packaging, must be clearly identified, as must any costs accrued through processing.
All that is needed is to bring together all relevant invoices and records of commodities taxes and production, and the nature of the ingredients used will be readily apparent, solving the problem of ingredients and labeling in one fell swoop. There would be no need to install new hardware; it could all be done on the government’s existing computer systems. If any company makes false claims about their products, they will be subject to a more severe fiscal and tax burden, and most companies would not be willing to take such a risk.
The fiscal, taxation and environmental agencies need to use this basic information to develop their own supervisory and inspection competencies. The vast majority of issues can be completed within the central government’s computer systems. A standardized information system would be able to ensure food and environmental safety in Taiwan.
However, the Ministry of Economic Affairs would rather spin some kind of fantasy of food safety to try to fool the public, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in the process. That it cannot ensure food safety through regular channels is simply pathetic. Government agencies are not fit for the purposes, with each ministry setting up its own accreditation, muddying the waters and meddling in things they have no business meddling in.
The government is not a group of mutually independent entities. It is incumbent upon public servants to carry out inspections from which the information can be correlated and verified, but at the moment, all the different government departments are acting independently of each other, all playing their own tune. In the resultant cacophony, the public has real cause for concern.
Jay Fang is chairman of the Green Consumers’ Foundation.
Translated by Paul Cooper