With great fanfare, the government on Wednesday announced eight steps to increase oversight on food manufacturing, including tougher penalties for those who break the law, the establishment of a three-tier quality control system and an overhaul of the Good Manufacturing Practices system.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s (江宜樺) press conference announcing the measures came one day after he and members of his Cabinet came under intense bipartisan attack on the legislative floor over the tainted cooking oil scandal, the latest in a string of such public health scandals in recent years.
The gist of the legislators’ criticism was that after each incident, the government has promised reforms and action, but within a few months another scandal erupts — albeit usually in a different sector of the food-and-beverage industry.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Sun Ta-chien (孫大千) said that the nation has fewer than 1,000 food safety inspectors, adding that it is “a structural problem.”
The problem is that the devil is in the details.
Jiang, the president and other officials can make all the promises they want and draw up countless lists of steps to take, but unless they ensure that the necessary structural reforms are made and that the requisite number of qualified personnel are hired to implement the reforms, they are just blowing smoke.
After all, the Ministry of Health and Welfare promised in October last year — after a food scandal — to establish a “food safety safeguarding alliance” and recruit university students majoring in food and nutrition to help conduct inspections.
Leaving aside the question of whether an “alliance” was what was needed or whether student inspectors were a realistic option, it turns out that the ministry was not able to establish the alliance until Monday, nearly a year later. That says much about the bureaucracy’s ability to respond to a systemic crisis.
Also promised on Wednesday were increased rewards to informants, especially to current or former workers who spill the beans on their employers.
However, the Pingtung County farmer whose evidence led to the revelation of the tainted lard oil scandal was motivated by the pollution of his land by the factory allegedly at the center of the scandal.
He has been given a NT$2 million (US$66,200) award and a medal by the government, but he would probably prefer to have his unpolluted land back.
Rewarding those who provide viable tips is certainly one way to help find miscreants, although a more effective way would be to spend the money necessary to build and maintain an effective inspection system so that consumers do not have to rely on the government getting a tip to discover that something has gone wrong.
At the beginning of the week, officials said that the number of products suspected of having been processed with Chang Guann Co’s (強冠企業) questionable oil had reached 187. There could be more to come. Jiang said this scandal has caused an estimated NT$5 billion in economic losses. He did not say how much it would cost to repair lost public trust.
Saying that the Cabinet must prevent similar incidents, the premier urged government agencies to be proactive and praised the Greater Taichung police and Pingtung County prosecutors for their work in following up on the farmer’s complaints.
It was all part of the administration’s desperate attempt to put on its brave face, but why should the premier behave as if civil servants investigating a complaint is out of the ordinary?
It is called doing their job.
With such an attitude in the top ranks, it is no wonder that these scandals — whether in the food industry, the construction sector or in public infrastructure — continue to surface, or erupt with fatal consequences, as with the gas pipeline blasts in Greater Kaohsiung.
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