The head of the Department of Health yesterday apologized for the delay in revealing the discovery of carcinogens in Chinese hairy crabs.
"It was an unforgivable lapse that ran against everything I emphasized about the importance of openness," Minister of Health Hou Sheng-mao (
Several batches of hairy crabs imported from China have been found to contain excessive levels of nitrofurans, carcinogenic chemicals that have been banned in most countries.
While fielding questions at the legislature's Sanitation, Environment and Social Welfare Committee yesterday, Hou promised that whoever had made the call to withhold information about the crabs would be held responsible, and that all crab shipments will be tested from now on.
Legislators from across party lines united at the session to blast Hou over the department's handling of the controversy.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Pan Meng-an (潘孟安) warned Hou "not to play games with people's lives," while People First Party Legislator Chung Shao-ho (鍾紹和) said that the problem should have been dealt with last year.
DPP Legislator Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) asked why Taiwan's standards on food imports seem to be more lax than those of other countries.
"If we're talking about the US or Japan, one bad shipment of Taiwanese snappers or mangos is enough to get us banned. Is the health of our citizens less important?" he asked.
Hou was also bitterly castigated by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Wu Ying-yih (吳英毅), but for a different reason.
"You should be out there eating hairy crabs in public to calm people down," said Wu, who denied that nitrofurans acted as carcinogens in humans.
"People are picking on crabs from China for political reasons," Wu said.
Hou's most vociferous critic was Taiwan Solidarity Union Legislator Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛).
Lai described Hou and the Department of Health as "serial offenders" in failing to publicize dangerous imports.
"How can you, as the gatekeeper of the nation's health, say that it's `just' a few parts per billion of carcinogens? If it's over the limit, it's over," Lai said.
"It was the same story with the tainted infant milk formula and the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] beef [scare], as well as last year's hairy crab season," she added.
Lai called for an immediate ban on hairy crabs and for Hou to step down.
"Their callous `don't worry, it probably won't kill you' attitude is unacceptable. Businesses are making big profits while consumers pay the price," Lai said.
She said that although she had no evidence of corruption, whether anyone benefited from not immediately announcing the toxicity findings was a legitimate question.
Hou said that when he promised to find and punish those who had caused the delay in informing the public, he was not trying to evade responsibility.
"I don't exclude myself from the list of those to be investigated," he said.
Retailers yesterday criticized the government's policy vacillations on hairy crab inspections and expressed concern that consumers would be scared away from eating crabs.
After the news broke on Wednesday that several batches of crabs from China contained traces of carcinogens, retailers Carrefour and Far Eastern Geant removed the problematic hairy crabs from their shelves the same day. Some hotels, including Grand Hyatt Taipei, Grand Formosa Regent Taipei and the Ambassador Hotel, have also stopped offering Chinese crab meals.