Health Minister Chiang Been-huang
Ready to Crack Down on Bad Food Practices
Taiwan's food industry is reeling from a series of edible oil problems uncovered in the past two months. The country's new health minister, Chiang Been-huang, explains how he will try to get it back on track.
Ready to Crack Down on Bad Food PracticesBy Kuo-Chen Lu, Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 559 )
Taiwan has faced five major food safety incidents over the past three years, unscrupulous food processors repeatedly challenging the limits of food safety regulations and their own consciences. The scares, most recently involving edible oils, have caused anxiety among consumers and tarnished Taiwan's image as a food kingdom.
Rebuilding that image and steering the food industry in a more positive direction will be the responsibility of Chiang Been-huang, Taiwan's new health minister and the first health czar to be a food science expert.
In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine a day before he took office on Oct. 22, Chiang confirmed that his ministry had launched a large-scale food safety investigation that intends to cover all edible oil factories, including units of the Uni-President Group, by the end of the year.
Even intelligence agents have started shuttling into Taiwan's countryside in the nationwide sweep, ready to crack down on underground food factories.
"I never thought there would be people so lacking in conscience. Facing these unscrupulous businessmen, it's an extraordinary time that requires extraordinary measures," Chiang says, voicing his determination to see the industry-wide sweep through even if further revelations of food safety problems could embarrass the governing Kuomintang ahead of local elections in late November.
Chiang intends to set up a three-tier mechanism that will make use of a "food product cloud" to monitor products from their source and automatically uncover irregularities. The system will record and track deliveries to each factory along with their purpose and quantity and even be able to calculate unit costs, gaining inside knowledge of companies' commercial secrets.
The new health minister expects these extraordinary measures will steer Taiwan's food sector toward a more virtuous cycle.
The following are excerpts from CommonWealth's interview with Chiang Been-huang.
CommonWealth Magazine: Some observers believe the next time bomb lurking following the lard-based oil incidents could be the Uni-President Group. The Ministry of Health and Welfare suddenly deployed considerable manpower in late October to investigate big food processors like Uni-President and the DaChan Great Wall Group. How is that coming?
Chiang Been-huang: On edible oils, the lard-based oil probe involves four companies everyone is familiar with: Cheng I Food Co. (a Ting Hsin International Group subsidiary); Chang Guann Co.; Namchow Chemical Industrial Co.; and President Nisshin Corp. (a Uni-President Group subsidiary). Two companies are out of the picture (Chang Guann and Cheng I have been ordered to halt their operations), leaving Namchow and President Nisshin. At present, the investigation has not found any problems with them.
(Editor's note: Two days after the interview, the ministry found that President Nisshin had misused tallow supplied by Ting Hsin, and Uni-President was ordered to take some of the affected products off store shelves. The investigation is still ongoing.)
99% of Edible Oils OK
CW: Is it really true that there are no more problems?
Chiang: Excluding of course very small mom-and-pop operations, we can say that there are no problems with 99 percent (of the lard-based oils).
The next step will be the 254 vendors in Taiwan selling all types of edible oils, including vegetable oils. Twenty-seven of those have annual revenues of more than NT$30 million, and I've requested that the investigations of those 27 be completed by the end of October. The rest should be covered by the end of the year, and where there are problems they should be immediately prosecuted.
CW: In the most recent lard-based oil scandals, proxy companies and underground factories turned up. What stronger action can you take?
Chiang: We have strengthened our inspection capabilities by bringing together (central government agencies) and increasing the frequency of on-site checks. Aside from the Ministry of Health and Welfare inspecting the factories of big food vendors, the country's national security apparatus and the National Police Agency are going after underground producers. That was originally the responsibility of local governments.
National Policy Agency Director-General Wang Cho-chiun has taken on the responsibility and formed a special task force to investigate underground food factories in Taiwan's cities and counties.
CW: Will the elections at the end of November influence your ability to conduct a comprehensive crackdown?
Chiang: There are absolutely no political considerations. The focus now is to do what needs to be done. Doing these things now of course is not good for the elections, but protecting consumers is the government's responsibility.
Surprise at the Lack of Conscience
CW: Five major food safety incidents have occurred over the past three years. The responses taken in the past have seemingly been ineffective. Now that you have taken your post, what do you plan to do?
Chiang: In terms of edible oils, the first case was Chang Chi Foodstuff (in late 2013). It adulterated its oils; it wasn't a food safety issue. What we never expected was that people would be so lacking in conscience and mix oils meant for animal feed into oils for human consumption. So where there was really a problem was the Chang Guann incident, which then extended to Cheng I and then to Ting Hsin Oil and Fat.
We humbly reviewed our responses to those incidents and found that the speed with which we handled them was probably not fast enough. Now, our philosophy is simple – extraordinary times deserve extraordinary measures.
CW: What is the first thing you will do after taking over as minister to launch a more virtuous cycle in Taiwan's food industry?
Chiang: A number of things are being done. For example, many clauses in the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation will help us better manage (food safety) in the future, including setting up tracking and tracing systems, strengthening the unified invoice system, stiffening penalties, and clarifying such legal issues as "natural persons" vs. "juridical persons." The law also gives us greater authority to inspect factories.
We are currently planning a three-tiered quality control system, with the first tier involving operators managing their own processes, the second tier involving third-party inspections and the third-tier involving government checks and monitoring.
First, we hope vendors will use ICT (information and communications technology) to manage their own operations – that's the "food cloud" concept. The vendors will be divided into three sizes – big, medium and small. The big suppliers' information systems and their tracking of raw materials will be incorporated into the "food cloud." We will be able to see vendors' information, and of course we will be responsible for keeping it confidential.
For the mid-sized companies, we'll give them software to install in their computers that will connect them to the food cloud and guide them on how to use it. For small operators, it will be the same as filing taxes. They can directly go online and report their raw material flows.
Second, we are requesting that they all have testing capabilities, and it would be best if they have their own laboratories. If that's not possible, a few companies could get together and set up a common lab for their own use. Otherwise, they would have to commission an outside lab to do their testing. After companies do their own testing, the government will follow up with its own checks.
CW: What about factories in which oils for animal feed, edible oils and recycled cooking oils can all be found together? That gives unscrupulous business people the chance to adulterate their oils.
Chiang: Our policy to separate production lines and separate factories will definitely be carried out. For example, Namchow has an edible oil factory and an industrial oil factory making Crystal-brand soaps. They are well-established factories. Uni-President also has a food factory and an animal feed factory.
Basically, we of course hope companies will separate production lines and factories, but you cannot require this to be achieved overnight. So we want to move in this direction in the future.
Many big factories have already successfully segmented their operations to a certain degree. If you look at Uni-President and Namchow, Uni-President's factories are basically separate. So our inspections mainly focus on seeing whether raw material piping systems that should be separated somehow were connected together.
A Global First
CW: On the problematic lard-based oils, nobody knew that imported oils meant for animal feeds were ending up in consumers' stomachs. Can this be checked and monitored in the future?
Chiang: That involves another concept, that of open data. If our back office platform can access information, it will be very useful.
Not only will we have the information from vendors that I've been talking about. The government also has financial and tax information and import declarations. We can use these to do our own analyses and if we spot irregularities we can alert the authorities concerned. For example, how much does it cost to make sesame oil? We need to have an idea because if the price of sesame oil falls to a level that we think is not profitable, we will pay close attention to the situation since nobody does business if there's no money to be made.
To be perfectly honest, this type of management is extremely stringent. I doubt if any other country around the world has imposed such tight controls. But we have no choice but to adapt these extraordinary measures.
I personally hope that under this strict monitoring system, food vendors will not dare cut corners. The best outcome would be if they did not even consider the idea, because then the industry as a whole would be relatively problem-free.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier