Amid an escalating food scandal, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus yesterday accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of covering up its discovery of the use of industrial starch in food products to benefit certain certification companies.
Citing the latest issue of the Chinese-language Next Magazine, DPP caucus whip Chiu Yi-ying (邱議瑩) said the agency had been aware of the illegal use of maleic anhydride-modified starch in food products since February, but did not take any action until the case made headlines and stirred up a public panic in April.
Chiu alleged that the agency’s coverup could have been meant to benefit certain certification firms, as evidenced by the dates when some of these companies began offering preferential deals to food manufacturers sending samples to be tested for the presence of maleic anhydride.
“On May 27, the FDA initiated the ‘0527 Project for Food Safety Event Regarding Starch Containing Maleic Anhydride’ and officially banned the use of the industrial starch. However, the Germany-based certification company TUV Rheinland Group started advertising and offering discounts on its [maleic anhydride] testing services as early as May 15,” Chiu said.
“The findings suggest that these certification companies were aware of the use of maleic anhydride long before the FDA made the announcement, leading me to assume that the FDA had sought to cover up the case and underestimated the severity of the matter,” she added.
Urging the government to launch an immediate probe into the sources of the industrial starch used by food manufacturers, Chiu said if the government failed to stamp out use of the substance at source, the food scare would not only take a toll on public health, but also on food vendors’ business.
FDA Director-General Kang Jaw-jou (康照洲) rejected the accusations, saying the agency did not cover up or delay taking action, nor did it seek to protect or benefit any company or food manufacturer.
Kang said the agency started looking into the case shortly after it heard of an unidentified illegal substance being used in food products on Feb. 4.
Following deliberations on possible investigative approaches at a meeting on Feb. 7, the FDA conducted a random inspection of 74 starch-based products on March 18 and completed the first batch of inspections on April 3, Kang said.
“Of the 74 products, three were found to contain maleic anhydride in the initial stages, followed by two more tainted products that were discovered later,” Kang said.
Kang said the agency then asked the Chiayi branch of the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau for assistance in running tests on more starch-based products on April 24 and made public its results on May 13 after collecting sufficient information on food manufacturers potentially implicated in the case on May 10.
“Investigations take time and there is no way we can have all the information all at once,” Kang said. “The FDA could be embroiled in legal issues if it makes public the names of suspected manufacturers without hard evidence. Doing so before the time is ripe may also give perpetrators time to conceal tainted products and evidence.”
FDA Northern Center for Regional Administration director Pan Chih-kuan (潘志寬) also dismissed the allegations, saying that some food manufacturers voluntarily sent their products for testing after hearing rumors about the investigation.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday said the government needed to adopt stricter inspection standards to prevent another food scare.
Despite amendments to the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) that allow stiffer penalties for those caught using banned ingredients in food, “prevention is always better than cure,” Ma, who doubles as the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) chairman, said at the party’s Central Standing Committee meeting.
Additional reporting by CNA