The recent series of food security scandals and scares, which include the adulteration of rice, edible oils, milk and saltwater fish, has shaken Taiwanese society, almost destroying public trust in the government in the process. This is detrimental to Taiwan’s development, and it will take a long time to undo the damage. Finding ways of doing so will require that we cut to the heart of the problem.
Because of the government’s failure to obtain the information needed to properly manage the crises as soon as they were discovered, the panic continued to spread. The government was then afraid that additional measures to control the issue would have a negative impact on industry, in particular the agricultural and fishery sectors. The government departments involved vacillated between protecting industrial interests on the one hand and consumer rights on the other. They were incapable of striking an appropriate balance between the two, with the result that they lost the initiative.
Since information was not forthcoming from the government, the panic continued to spread among consumers, who began to purchase alternative products. This development had a negative impact on the affected products, and even manufacturers that had not broken the law were boycotted because consumers were unable to differentiate between adulterated and non-adulterated products. The result was that everyone — the government, manufacturers and consumers — lost out.
To remedy the situation by guaranteeing food safety and rebuilding public trust, the government should set up a food traceability system. It would also be possible to further calm the public if the government departments involved could abandon the notion of departmentalism, reveal the facts and then work together to propose a concrete solution.
Using the dispute over heavy metal levels in saltwater fish as an example, such fish contain a lot of omega-3 fats such as eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. These nutrients are needed by the human body, as they promote brain cell development and prevent coronary spasms and atherosclerosis. It is an undisputed fact that they are beneficial to the human body.
At the same time, some sea regions are heavily polluted by heavy metals, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls and endocrine disruptors, also known as environmental hormones. These toxic pollutants enter the marine food chain through bacteria and plankton, and their toxicity is then further strengthened through bioaccumulation, meaning they become a potential health threat. The government should not downplay these threats out of fear of affecting fishermen’s livelihoods.
The problem is that not all saltwater fish are polluted by heavy metals. The mercury levels in tuna will differ greatly between different species depending on where their spawning grounds are, where they are caught and what tools are used to catch them. The mercury levels in younger albacore caught by way of trolling or pole fishing, for example, will be lower than in older albacore caught in deeper waters through longline fishing.
In the same way, mercury levels in canned tuna manufactured around the world also vary. In the US, the figure is 0.086 micrograms per gram, while canned tuna from Ecuador contains 0.245 micrograms. In Thailand, the figure is 0.104 micrograms and in the Philippines it is 0.108 micrograms.
The government should not hold raw-fish-eating contests to allay public concerns. Instead, it has to be responsible and conduct tests for the presence of mercury and other heavy metals in economically important fish such as tuna, marlin, flying fish and dolphinfish and then provide concrete data to show whether the values found fall within the safety margins and whether the fish are safe to consume. It should also set up a dedicated information Web site that could help people dispel any doubts.
Such measures would be the most effective ways of protecting the rights and interests of both consumers and fishermen.
Food is very important, and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that food is safe and to provide accurate and timely information so that consumers are able to make informed choices.
It is high time that the government abandoned its obscurantist approach on this issue.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Perry Svensson