Avian Flu, Leanness Enhancing Drugs – Taiwan is erupting with food scandals, and current controls seem incapable of stemming the tide. Who actually is responsible for the meat that ends up on Taiwanese plates?
Beefsteak ConfidentialBy Rebecca Lin, Ching-Hsuan Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 493 )
The average Taiwanese consumes 40 kilograms of pork, 6 kg of beef and 21.7 kg of poultry, or a total of 77 kg of various meats, every year. Per capita meat consumption in Taiwan is twice as high as in nearby Japan or South Korea, lagging behind only the steak-devouring United States and schnitzel-loving Germany. Given the island's carnivorous diet, safe meat is crucial to national health.
Who are the people who control what lands on Taiwanese dinner tables? The food safety system seems to be strict and tight, with a string of controls from the raising of livestock, to the auctioning and slaughtering of animals, to the inspection of imported meat samples. How come that the system still does not function well?
To find the answer, CommonWealth Magazine reporters tracked down the distribution routes for meat, visited local meat vendors and meat markets, witnessed on-site meat inspections and laboratory tests, and talked to livestock farmers. In the process, we identified four major loopholes in the long journey from live animal to meat chop.
Loophole No. 1: Severe Manpower Shortage
With only about 400 inspectors watching over the food safety of a population of 23 million people, the food control system is severely understaffed.
Scene 1: The Night Market
It is late in the afternoon on March 10 and already getting dark. Like every weekend, a crowd of some 30,000 is flooding Renwen Night Market in Douliou, Yunlin County. Hsieh Ming-lang, owner of the Little Kobe Beefsteak stall, instructs his staff to put up tables and stools to get ready for meat-hungry customers. The signboard advertises beef, pork and chicken steaks for NT$100 a piece. Hsieh's stall serves an average 2,000 customers per night.
At the other end of the night market, the portly figure of Wu Zhao-jun, head of the Yunlin County Government Public Health Bureau, leads six health inspectors, IDs dangling from their necks, on a tour of the night market's steak vendors.
First they check whether the meat comes from animals with a veterinary certificate for import to Taiwan. They confirm the country of origin, and then take meat samples and seal them in plastic bags. Labeled with the vendor's name, the bags are placed in a blue ice box and sent to the Central Laboratory under the Department of Health (DOH) for testing.
"When it comes to overseeing food hygiene, local governments are severely short of both manpower and resources," Wu Zhao-jun declares, counting his problems on his fingers. In Yunlin, one section chief has six people working underneath him. A grand total of 7 people must control the food safety of the entire county's 720,000-strong population.
Rather than an exception, Yunlin is the rule.
Islandwide there are a little over 400 food inspectors. "Just counting the restaurants and food manufacturers, there are more than 300,000. Do the math – how many years does it take to tour all of them?" asks Kang Jaw-Jou, the Director-General of the Food and Drug Administration under the DOH. And, as he points out, these numbers do not include food vendors at night markets or street stalls.
Loophole No. 2: Insufficient Sampling
Local inspection agencies are seriously understaffed, but human resources at central government laboratories are even more severely limited. The number of samples taken is far too low, markedly increasing the possibility of unsafe meat slipping through the holes in the system.
According to its own planned quotas, the central government's Department of Health only tests 50 samples of meat from Yunlin County annually, including chicken, duck, pork and beef. Nationwide, it tests a mere 300 samples on average every year. The samples must be analyzed for residues of over one hundred veterinary drugs including antibiotics and leanness enhancing substances.
Taiwanese Premier Sean Chen frankly admits that the food control system is overwhelmed, given that the island imports 300,000 different food items annually. The local public health bureaus collect around 750,000 samples per year, but their affiliated laboratories are also inadequately staffed and funded, with a total of just 26 scientists and a budget of less than NT$20 million. This means that a single laboratory technician needs to analyze more than 100 samples per day.
Given that staffing is tight when it comes to food control at the end point, source control becomes even more important. The question is, are these source controls strict?
Scene 2: The Meat Market
The second stop on our journey through the Taiwanese food safety system: The Yunlin Meat Market. This is an important checkpoint for locally raised livestock. Here, inspectors are supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff for the consumer.
Yunlin is Taiwan's largest hog farming county. More than 57,000 pigs are auctioned off at the Yunlin Meat Market every month, about 10 percent of the national total.
Ting Ying-chieh, who once served as veterinarian at the meat auction, now heads the meat products section at the company that runs the meat market. The first thing Ting did during the past three decades when arriving at the auction venue is to don his white coat and examine the hogs as they entered the building.
"If you glanced across them, you roughly knew how healthy the pigs were on that day," notes Ting. He judged their state of health not only by their appearance, but also by their squeals and grunts, as well as their odors.
On behalf of the Council of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ), the National Animal Industry Foundation (NAIF) also regularly takes blood and hair samples from pigs.
From the auction to the slaughterhouse, each pig goes through a three-way veterinary inspection procedure. As a result, more than 3,000 pigs are eliminated from being used for human consumption every month.
Scene 3: The Slaughterhouse
We followed food controllers to Scene 3 of the food control system: The slaughterhouse, which amounts to the final safety check before meat products reach the market.
Wearing a white lab coat, a white safety helmet and white rubber boots, a veterinarian is closely examining just-slaughtered pigs.
"Here the vets have an absolute say. A pig is immediately eliminated if there's a problem with the meat or the internal organs," insists Wu Chun-te, deputy general manager of the Yunlin Meat Market Company.
Loophole No. 3: Many Additives, Few Tests
There are more than 40 drugs that make animals leaner, but the DOH analyses samples for only seven of them. Moreover, penalties for the use of the banned leanness enhancers are so low that unscrupulous hog farmers think it is worth taking the risk.
While the food control system seems to be watertight at all levels, it is not able to protect us from banned leanness enhancers. In 2010 the scandal about the use of colterol, another leanness enhancer, by Taiwanese hog farmers, belied the myth that Taiwan had effective source controls.
In the spring of that year hog farmers in Yunlin and Jhanghua began touting a chemical as a secret weapon, dubbing it "No. 8," because it was not among Taiwan's seven banned leanness enhancers at the time. Pigs that ate feed laced with No. 8 produced leaner meat, grabbing prices that were 10-20 percent above market price.
Wasn't that almost too good to be true?
Whenever the hog farmers worried that No.8 was a banned leanness enhancer, Liu Chao-wei, a drug maker from Tuku in Yunlin County who peddled No. 8 everywhere, reassured them it wasn't. He also brandished a laboratory analysis report claiming that "not a single one of the seven government-regulated leanness enhancers has been detected by the labs." Chang Hong-You, director-general of the Yunlin County Animal Disease Control Center, recalls that No. 8 became more and more popular as many farmers tried to push their luck.
When BAPHIQ officials heard about the wonder drug, they commissioned NAIF to take hair samples from hogs at farms that had previously been black-listed for using banned substances. The tests inadvertently discovered that pig hair samples from different sites yielded similar molecular ion peaks.
Much More Toxic than Ractopamine
So what was this drug after all?
"We even asked university professors to help synthesize its chemical components," recalls BAPHIQ deputy director-general Huang Kwo-ching. Eventually they found out that the mysterious No. 8 was nothing else but colterol, a leanness enhancer that was not listed among the official drug residue test items.
"Colterol is 2,000 times more toxic than ractopamine," fumes Lai Shiow-suey, a veterinary medicine professor emeritus at NTU, dramatically sticking up two fingers in the air.
The effects of colterol are so potent and lasting that hog farmers went scrambling after the drug. In October and November 2010, BAPHIQ took hair samples from 948 pigs at meat markets around the island. Subsequent lab tests found that 88 samples, or 9 percent, contained colterol, an incidence rate more than 20 times higher than for all other controlled leanness enhancers.
Prosecutors and criminal investigators quietly investigated the drug abuse for several months and then arrested Liu for selling the drug. Later on, the Control Yuan served the Council of Agriculture and the DOH a "corrective measure" (a formal reprimand), arguing that during the 113-day time window caused by the lengthy investigation, between 10,000 and 100,000 colterol-containing pigs had been successfully sold into the market.
Lai does not mince words: "The penalties are too light, so people are willing to take the risk." If a lean pig fetches a price of, for example, NT$300 more than the average pig, then in a single day, this will add up to a windfall of NT$30,000 for a batch of 100 pigs.
Under current laws and regulations, farmers that are caught using banned drugs for the first time can be fined up to NT$150,000. Repeat offenses within a year of the first offense carry a fine of just NT$250,000, while the maximum penalty is a mere NT$1.25 million.
Scene 4: The Livestock Farm
Our next stop tracking down the meat supply chain: As producers of meat, the source material, farms play a critical role in food safety. If controls are sloppy already at this early stage, ensuring the safety of processed meat products becomes even more difficult.
According to regulations, quarantine officials are required to regularly visit livestock farms to take samples to verify whether breeders use banned veterinary drugs. However, such controls are not without loopholes.
Although it is a weekend, the local Animal Disease Control Center has mobilized all staff in the early morning. Divided into six groups, the inspectors fan out to local poultry farms to take blood samples.
The evening before, the center's director Chang Hong-You, a senior veterinarian with 23 years' experience, was busy until midnight, separating blood serum from poultry blood samples that had come in during the day. But the next morning, the tireless Chang is nonetheless accompanying his inspectors to a poultry farm in Sijhen Village.
Wearing masks and blue protective suits, quarantine officials Huang An-chin and Ma Wei-chen grab chickens from their cages with deft movements that reveal years of practice. They draw blood from the chickens' necks into specimen tubes.
The center, which is in charge of monitoring the use of veterinary drugs and disease prevention, has only 29 veterinarians. They are responsible for the health of 1.48 million pigs and more than 10 million chickens in the county. "There is a host of drugs, and there is basically no way to know who is using which drug," says Chang, frankly admitting that against this backdrop, loopholes are unavoidable.
Loophole No. 4: No Unified Inspection System
From farm to market, a host of government agencies oversees individual aspects of the supply chain, with no coordinated system of control.
In a bid to fix the loopholes, the Council of Agriculture will now increase to 25 the number of leanness enhancers among the lab test items. But the local public health bureaus, which monitor meats at the market end – the final check point before it is released for consumption – still test for only the original seven banned drugs, allowing the notorious No. 8 to slip through.
The Ma administration has locked the front gate of the food safety management system, but it has left the back door open. From farm to market, the regulatory system is segmented into many different channels, making safety controls far more likely to lapse.
"The food safety system should be comprehensive and integrated. But presently it's spread out across various cabinet agencies, which don't interconnect very well, so problems are likely," notes Chou Chin-cheng, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at National Taiwan University.
Re-engineering Taiwan's Food Safety Network
Taiwan's food safety network, which ought to be watertight, without loopholes, cannot afford a pattern of repeated inefficacy. Regardless of whether the government legalizes the use of leanness enhancers, the most pressing task is building an effective food security system so that the public can regain trust in the government.
1. Reforming the Food Security System
In Chou's view, Taiwan's complicated system of controls on imported meat has ultimately failed to prevent unsafe meat from entering the market. A review is called for, to ascertain who devised the current system, as well as why it has not been implemented, or why it can't be. The government must face the reality that the system is flawed. "Where an apology is due, an apology should be made," Chou believes.
2. Reallocating Resources
One veteran quarantine official with more than 20 years of experience notes that virulent outbreaks of the avian flu immediately cause great losses to the poultry industry. The discovery of leanness enhancers not only in beef, but also in pork, duck and goose meat is likely to undermine the reputation of the entire livestock industry. "Those in power must consider whether they want to allocate more resources," remarks the official, who did not want to be named.
The government is also aware of the problem. Premier Sean Chen recently declared that beginning March 20 the government would test every batch of imported beef. Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta has estimated this will require NT$100 million in funding and 15 new temporary employees to meet the additional personnel requirements at testing laboratories.
3. Promoting a Tracking System for Agricultural Goods
Consumers must be educated how to recognize unsafe food. And then a tracking system for agricultural goods must be promoted to exert pressure on producers from the consumer end, so that they change their animal husbandry methods.
The Yunlin County Government is currently devoting considerable effort to establishing a "Happy Pig" brand. "Without tracing sources and building brands, we won't be able to be competitive," acknowledges Deputy County Magistrate Shih Keh-her.
4. Investing in High-End Agriculture; Competing on Quality, Not Price
Chu-Ping Lo, assistant professor at NTU's Department of Agricultural Economics, cites South Korea as an example. The Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the United States went into force just a week ago.
However, nine years ago, Seoul began to draw up a ten-year US$100 billion plan to upgrade the country's agricultural industry. "They committed funds worth three times the annual budget of the Council of Agriculture to restructure the agricultural sector," Lo points out.
Change must be instigated at the source, so that farmers no longer fight price wars, but use quality to achieve higher profits. When controlling animal farms and food safety, the Ma government must not shirk its responsibility.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz