The Department of Health (DOH) yesterday took issue with media reports that said the government raised maximum residue levels for 11 different pesticides to accommodate fruit imported from South Korea.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director-General Kang Jaw-jou (康照洲) said the government receives up to 1,000 requests a year to review its standards for different types of pesticides.
The department makes decisions on those requests based on an overall evaluation, including the situations in Taiwan and in other countries, and not based on satisfying any one country, Kang said.
The Chinese-language China Times reported yesterday that the department “quietly” raised the maximum residue levels for the 11 pesticides in late November last year and in late June after South Korea asked Taiwan to lower the bar for its apples.
Taiwan had not set residue standards for any of the 11 pesticides in apples and they were therefore not allowed, but all 11 now have maximum residue levels.
The news that the department changed its standards for the 11 pesticides only came to light a week ago, when Taiwanese media were invited to visit South Korea’s Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corp.
The newspaper quoted an official at the state-run South Korean company as saying that South Korean farmers “tried as hard as they could to reduce the number of times they sprayed pesticides, but still couldn’t pass the inspection in Taiwan.”
The South Korean official said that after a year of hard work, “Taiwan’s government finally loosened its standards for 11 pesticides, and we believe that for the export of South Korean apples to Taiwan, pesticides will no longer be an issue.”
Lin Ja-liang (林杰樑), a clinical toxicology specialist at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital’s Linkou branch, said that according to animal studies done by the US Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to the pesticides could have severe health consequences.
The studies found that metconazole, spirodiclofen and flufenoxuron — three of the 11 pesticides for which the standards were changed — can respectively cause liver tumors, uterine tumors in women and anemia.
Some of the other pesticides are relatively new and only limited research has been done on their potential hazards, Lin said, according to reports in the China Times and Liberty Times (the Taipei Times sister paper).
“The government should have acted more conservatively,” Lin said, and he asked why the department would allow traces of spirodiclofen in apples when it is forbidden in pears.
Consumers’ Foundation chairman Mark Chang (張智剛) said that if produce from other countries was able to conform to Taiwan’s regulations, the department should not have given in to South Korea or raised the standards higher than the levels South Korea lobbied for, according to the Liberty Times.
In its defense, the Agricultural Chemicals and Toxic Substances Research Institute under the Council of Agriculture (COA) said some of the pesticides involved are used in Taiwan, such as spirodiclofen, which was first allowed in papayas and tea leaves five years ago.
Institute director Fei Wen-chi (費雯綺) said due to differences in climate and geography, the pesticides used in different countries vary and that many countries ask Taiwan to review its pesticide policies and norms each year.
According to the Liberty Times, Fei said the final decision on pesticide residues generally involved trade negotiations between governments, but she did not know what was behind the department’s decision this time.
Tsai Shu-chen (蔡淑貞), a section chief at the FDA, was quoted by the China Times as saying that the decision was made after checks at all levels and that no trade negotiation was involved. Taiwan has been South Korea’s largest export market for its apples.
In 2009, 92.5 percent of the apples exported by South Korea, worth US$17.87 million, were shipped to Taiwan, but the percentage dropped to 86.7 percent in 2010 and 66.4 percent last year, the South Korean state-run company said.
The decreased share of apple exports to Taiwan was said to be a result of competition from other countries, such as Japan, and inspection issues, with several batches of apples found to contain traces of pesticides that were banned in Taiwan.
According to statistics from the Council of Agriculture, the US was Taiwan’s largest source of apples last year, shipping 52,424.8 tonnes, followed by Chile, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.