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Taiwan's Food Scare
When Will the Government Get in Gear?

Three years ago, the Control Yuan submitted proposals to reform Taiwan's food safety oversight system, but as the recent DEHP scandal shows, the government failed to act. Who is to be held accountable?

Photos: CW

The time to act is now.

The afternoon sun bores through the windows of the Control Yuan, baking the office space like an oven. Inside, Control Yuan member Cheng Jen-hung is hunched over his desk scrutinizing the 2008 "Investigative Report on Food Additive Safety Regulations and Standards," published pursuant to his follow-up investigation in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal, and the subsequent "National Survey of Safety and Hygiene of Foodstuffs," the results of which were released last year.

His mood, however, grows increasingly dark and cold.

Early this year, Cheng, along with Yang Mei-ling, Wu Feng-shan, Liu Yuh-shan and Hung Chao-nan, fellow Control Yuan members charged with oversight of food safety issues, met to discuss the results of the preceding three years of supervisory efforts. All were of the opinion that the Department of Health, as the competent authority on matters of public health, had been derelict in its duties to ensure food safety.

Following revelations of melamine-tainted milk powder being sold in Taiwan, Lin Fang-yue resigned as health minister, followed in quick succession by Yeh Chin-chuan and Yaung Chih-liang. In Cheng Jen-hung's view, during their tenures as health minister, Yeh and Yaung continued to maintain a passive, even dismissive, approach toward the Control Yuan's food safety reports. Even when visiting the Executive Yuan on inspection tours, Control Yuan members took the opportunity to present the results of their reports to the Cabinet for two consecutive years. But their efforts came to naught.

"At the time we decided we'd give it another six-months period of observation, then take action," Cheng says. Little did they know, before those six months had expired, another food additive incident would erupt in front of the public eye.

"No one, from the public health authorities to the Executive Yuan, took the problems with food as a serious public issue," Cheng sighs.

"Taking the problems with food as a serious public issue" is a stance Cheng has long advocated, and it constitutes the point on which he and the Department of Health evince the greatest divergence.

Action Fails to Move DOH

Putting the interest of the people foremost is nothing new for Cheng. Beginning as a volunteer with the Consumer Foundation up through stints as secretary-general and chairman of that organization, Cheng has long been a crusader for the public interest, though many of his colleagues in that endeavor were unaware of his "day job" as a professor at Chinese Culture University's Department of Geography.

The Consumer Foundation's public stature was at its highest during his tenure as secretary-general. That period saw the foundation calling at least three press conferences a week, and Cheng's slight, erudite figure could be seen in the media on a daily basis arguing himself hoarse on behalf of the public interest. He helped expose the overuse of preservatives in tapioca balls (as used in "pearl milk tea"), and filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the members of the Alexander Gym chain when it suddenly closed without warning. Where there was an issue involving consumer rights, Cheng would be right there in the thick of it.

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