"Basil feared to cause cancer," ran one of many media headlines that appeared in February. "The Internet rumors are real! Basil contains carcinogens, Department of Health (DOH) says," ran another.
Just in the past year, Taiwan has had a number of food scares, including the "carcinogenic crab fiasco," which saw the Bureau of Food Safety (BFS) director Hsia Tung-ming (蕭東銘) step down, and the "coppery oysters" scare that saw oyster sales plummet overnight in some markets. While consumer groups, some legislators and some experts think that the public is right to be concerned about foods that might be harmful, others say in reality the risks are low.
"It is not meaningful to say that a poison or carcinogen or contagion is present in a food item if you do not also tell me that it is present at a level which presents a significant risk," said Hsieh Hsien-tang (
A study conducted by the Bureau of Food and Drug Analysis said that safrole, a substance that has been found to induce liver cancer in rats when given in large quantities, is found in basil at the rate of 1mg to 25mg per kilogram. Asian basil is featured in many of the country's favorite dishes, but is usually used in small amounts.
"You would have to eat kilograms of basil every day for years on end before having to start worrying about its carcinogenic properties," said researcher Wen Chi-pang (溫啟邦). "Meanwhile, nobody is talking about betel nuts, which contain 1,000 times more safrole than basil on top of its other deleterious effects."
Hsieh most recently served on a panel of experts assessing the risk of US and Canadian beef. Despite the objection of one of the panel members who quit in protest, the panel concluded that North American beef was statistically safe, despite intermittent cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in recent years.
Hsieh's critics disagree with his approach to risk assessment.
Chen Shun-sheng (陳順勝), vice-superintendent of Mackay Hospital, is the panelist who quit in protest.
"Hsieh is treating prions as a poison instead of a contagion which will remain in our soil forever," Chen said. "US beef is not irreplaceable or essential ... We should not take the risk without a more thorough assessment."
"For every occurrence, no matter how horrible, there is a point beyond which the risk is so small that it is worth taking," Hsieh said in defense of the panel's recommendation that the ban on US and Canadian beef be lifted.
Hsieh and Wen called for the public and the media to pay more attention to risks such as riding scooters unsafely, eating too much fast food and removing arsenic in groundwater even though those issues are less headline-grabbing.
"I think there is a fear of the unknown that leads people to give food scares undue weight, especially given their sensational and graphical depiction in the media," Hsieh said. "Yet at the same time, there is no outrage in Taipei, the capital of our country, over half the raw sewage produced going straight into the Tamsui river untreated."
There is also a class dimension to the focus on exotic food scares over existing and well-known public health problems, Wen said.
"Ten percent of Taiwanese still do not have access to municipal water, so they have to rely on underground water, often laced with cancer-causing arsenic," Wen said. "But this is not as big an issue in the press as dioxin-tainted goats' milk or copper-containing oysters because it is an issue that only affects the marginalized."
"What we need to address is the disparity in life expectancy of the haves and have-nots," Wen said. "There is a 13-year gap in life expectancy between those who live in Taipei and those who live in Taitung."
However, the Consumers' Foundation, which sounded the alarm on high levels of copper in oysters in March, said that people of all classes were affected by unsafe food.
"Beef and oysters are staples enjoyed by most Taiwanese," Consumers' Foundation chairman Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏) said. "We need to be vigilant because all small risks add up over time and long term risks are hard to assess."
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