Rethinking Taiwan’s Food Safety System
Is Your Kitchen Really Safe?
The shadows of successive food safety scandals continue to cast a pall over Taiwanese consumers. At a time when government regulation has proved inadequate and even top brands have faltered, how should Taiwan go about addressing the issue?
Is Your Kitchen Really Safe?By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 625 )
Taiwan has faced several food safety scandals in recent years that have left vendors and consumers wondering whether there will ever be any light at the end of the tunnel.
One food vendor was at wit’s end after the latest scare, involving eggs. “Yesterday, the price went down NT$6 in one day, falling below my costs,” lamented Dawushan Egg Farm chief Weng Ting-hsiang, his brow furrowed in thought. “In the past, it would never go down more than NT$2 to NT$3.”
Shortly after news emerged in mid-April that some eggs had been found to contain traces of dioxin, egg prices plummeted. Though the problematic eggs came from Changhua County, Dawushan Egg Farm in Taiwan’s southernmost Pingtung County also took a hit despite having a traceability system in place and proof of its product’s origins. Those protective shields were of no use against the prevailing consumer panic.
The incident is typical of Taiwan’s food safety environment, where the clouds of the past continue to hover in the minds of the country’s consumers. Whenever an incident occurs, it takes a heavy toll on society as a whole, yet despite pledges of change and reform, another problem usually pops up not long after.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) issued a white paper on food safety policy in early 2016 that plotted a new blueprint for food safety management. The new system’s mission was to “help build a food safety chain from the farm to the kitchen table.”
Chiang Been-huang, the health minister at the time and a noted expert on food safety, said in the white paper that major food safety scandals in previous years had “created a crisis of confidence on food safety among consumers, hurt the international image of Taiwanese food, and caused heavy economic damage.”
Promoting food safety will require education, starting with teaching children about using fresh ingredients and making simple dishes.
Without safety, there can be no food culture or food industry. When repeated scandals related to tainted or adulterated cooking oils erupted in 2014, the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics estimated they would reduce domestic consumption by more than NT$10 billion and bring down third quarter GDP growth by 0.05 percent. Another scandal that emerged in 2011 related to the use of toxic plasticizers in additives for widely consumed foods and beverages caused NT$11.4 billion in economic losses, according to a Control Yuan report.
The constant food safety scares have left consumer confidence so fragile that it’s becoming increasingly harder to win it back. In the recent egg scare, it took nearly a month, for example, for the price of eggs just to return to NT$25 per 600 grams (1 Taiwanese catty), still down from NT$28 per 600 grams before the dioxin incident emerged.
“After learning of the situation, we identified the source of the problem within a week and completed the culling of birds,” says Chen Chi-chung, the deputy chief of Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (COA). But despite the prompt action, the incident has had a lingering impact on consumers’ psyches and farmers’ revenues.
The Food/Environmental/Agricultural Safety Link
In fact, food safety, environmental safety and even agricultural safety are links in the same chain. A good environment means fewer pesticides and less fertilizer during cultivation, resulting in healthier plants that help people stay healthy.
Also, “Taiwan’s food self-sufficiency ratio is only 32 percent; 68 percent is imported from abroad, so we are completely dependent on strong border controls,” says Legislator Chen Man-li, who was once the chairwoman of the Homemakers United Foundation, an environmental safety advocacy group.
These interlinked issues explain why food safety is the responsibility of so many government agencies, from the COA (responsible for farm production), MOHW (food on the market), and Environmental Protection Administration (the environment) to the Ministry of Economic Affairs (food vendor oversight). From the cultivation to processing and selling stage, every food item we eat has three to four government agencies and more than 1,000 procedures overseeing the process. So why, despite all of these systematic checks, do food safety scandals continue to frequently arise? There are three main reasons.
Problem No. 1: Eight Agencies Responsible for One Pig
The government’s ineffective governance may be a problem that has never been solved.
“In the past, we would often laugh at China that one pig was managed by eight agencies and that there was another department managing those eight agencies,” Kang Jaw-jou wrote on Facebook. “We have now just about fallen into that model,” he continued with a hint of frustration.
Kang, who previously headed the Executive Yuan’s Office of Food Safety and now teaches in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Toxicology, has first-hand experience with the unwieldy food bureaucracy.
A few years ago, some chrysanthemum tea being sold in Taiwan was found to have excessive levels of pesticides, but nobody seemed to know if it was made in Taiwan or imported. The COA insisted that pesticide usage on home-grown chrysanthemums was carefully managed and that the problematic tea was definitely imported. The MOHW responded that imported chrysanthemum tea was 100 percent inspected and did not have any problems.
“There’s constant back-and-forth where everybody insists they’re right. The argument then goes to a minister and then right up to the premier, who then tells the agencies to go back and study the situation some more,” Kang says with a sigh.
“But the turnover in political appointees is too fast, and new people don’t understand the problem, so it never gets solved.”
Even the new government that took office in May 2016 with pledges to deal with food safety has yet to solve the puzzle.
COA deputy chief Chen Chi-chung says he is aware of the cumbersome bureaucracy, “and this time the deputy chiefs of different agencies discussed the issue right away and decided on the steps to take,” referring to the dioxin-tainted egg scare in April.
“[But] we still need to figure out how to build a cross-agency command system and it has to be effectively coordinated if we want to get to the root of the problem,” Chen admits.
Problem No. 2: Unconvinced by Science
In explaining food safety issues, the government often relies solely on science and numerical analysis, leaving the public unconvinced. In almost every food safety crisis to date, the government has made a scientific argument to explain the situation, only to have it rejected by a majority of people.
When then Health Minister Lin Fang-yue faced a brewing scandal over traces of the chemical melamine found in dairy products imported from China in 2008, his response in part was to adjust the safety standard for melamine in foods from 0 parts per million (ppm) to 2.5 parts per million to align it with international standards and reconcile differences in the sensitivity of test instruments. That sparked a public outcry, which forced Lin to step down after serving only 129 days in the post, the shortest tenure of any Taiwanese health chief in history.
“Everything from environmental to sanitary controls remains stuck in old models, where scientific evidence is the only foundation,” says Chou Kuei-tien, the chief director of National Taiwan University’s Risk Society and Policy Research Center. But science is obviously not without its own uncertainties and social ethics issues.
In one of the scandals that surfaced in 2014, Ting Hsin Oil and Fat Industrial was found to have imported animal feed-grade oil from Vietnam and then refined it before selling it as cooking oil. The finished product actually passed MOHW acid value tests – a common parameter in specifications for oils and fats. Consumers were dumbfounded that the oil met the standard and simply refused to accept the results.
“It has been very hard to build public trust in the government because this type of thinking has been around for a long time, but science cannot decide everything,” Chou stresses.
Problem No. 3: Inadequate Legal Standards
Another problem is that after every food safety incident, regulations and standards have gotten stricter, but they still fail to keep up with the times.
Taiwan’s “Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation” was enacted in 1975 and has been amended 14 times since then, including nine times since the melamine scandal erupted in 2008.
“The frequent revisions indicate on the one hand that the government is actively and quickly reacting to the problem, but on the other hand that there’s a lack of vision and comprehensive thinking, and that supplementary measures remain inadequate,” wrote Shaw Ning-sing, a professor in National Taiwan University’s Department of Biochemical Science and Technology.
Lin Liang-mao, the head of Chiayi County’s Agriculture Department who often faces the problem on the front lines, says with a sense of helplessness that Taiwan’s laws have been unable to keep up with new trends. In terms of random inspections, for example, they are all directed at wholesale markets and do not cover new retail channels such as home delivery and online shopping, leaving a sizable inspection loophole, he says.
Have 10 Years of Scandals Changed Taiwan?
There is no denying, however, that Taiwan has absorbed some of the lessons of the food safety incidents of the past 10 years.
During Ma Ying-jeou’s time as president (2008 to 2016), the many incidents involving illegal chemical additives in foods, such as toxic plasticizers in beverages and maleic acid in starches, led to the creation of an interagency “food cloud” tracking and traceability system. The system has gradually strengthened food makers’ reporting of their sources of raw materials, their suppliers, and the flow of their products in the market.
Also, the Ministry of Education, COA and MOHW set up a food registration platform for schools so that whenever a substandard ingredient was discovered, the Education Ministry could immediately take action.
“This was a very advanced approach. After the many food scandals, the message flow and information flow was more advanced than in many countries,” observes one scholar. But he warned that there were still many gaps because of ongoing widespread resistance.
Traceability enables each ingredient to be traced back to its source, but Taiwan's labeling system is too complex. The COA hopes to create a unified labeling system within 3 years.
During her election campaign, Ma’s successor Tsai Ing-wen proposed a “Five Links of Food Safety” program that she pledged to gradually implement after being elected. As part of that program, a Toxic and Chemical Substances Bureau was set up under the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) in December 2016, bringing responsibility for chemical substances that had previously been governed by 11 agencies under one roof.
The new bureau will expand traceability up and down supply chains and put in place a centralized source control model.
To ensure that schoolchildren have access to safe food, the COA has given incentives to schools use “four label, one Q” ingredients, referring to the CAS, Organic, Traceability Agricultural Product, and Good Agricultural Product labels and traceability QR codes. After more than 100 meetings, all of Taiwan’s cities and counties except for three island counties are expected to be part of the system by September this year.
Beyond that, Tsai’s pledge of “10 times more inspections” was launched to make up for the existing lack of inspections. The inspections were stepped up in part to find the sources of problems and give guidance to suppliers to reduce the number of substandard products.
“This is to be done in coordination with agricultural product traceability to be able to trace the product,” the COA’s Chen says.
But aside from the need to solve manpower and funding problems, a major problem faced by the stepped up inspections is that the planted area of fruits and vegetables covered by the agriculture traceability system is only 3,800 hectares, and the QR code traceability system covers only 17,000 hectares. The two combined account for only about 10 percent of Taiwan’s cultivated land excluding rice paddies, which means that tracking the sources of food problems could still be a daunting task.
In addition, the tests only cover substances that are already “known”; they cannot test for the “unknown,” such as the toxic plasticizers that should never have been in food items in the first place.
Rebuilding a Public Management Structure
Any hope, however, of eliminating public angst over food safety once and for all still requires rebuilding the government’s food management structure.
“The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has gained total control of power and has a good opportunity to comprehensively review and improve the situation,” Kang says. “Not only me but all of academia expects relatively major changes and reforms to identify the real problems.”
Perhaps the most pressing task is assessing risks and improving communications. DPP Legislator Wu Kuen-yuh, who is also a professor in National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health, often asks his students, “if this glass of water had arsenic in it, would you drink it?”
Arsenic was the main culprit behind the black foot disease epidemic that ravaged southwestern Taiwan in the 1950s, but it is also found naturally in water and modern technology has no way of completely removing it. Taiwan’s EPA has an arsenic standard for drinking water, which means that as long as the concentration of arsenic is within the standard, the water is safe to drink.
“If you insist on ingredients that are completely free of toxic substances, you won’t find them on the planet,” Wu says.
But the information the public gets is often one-sided and incomplete, and many people are under the impression that all substances that are ingested should be “non-toxic,” an indication that the government needs to communicate better on the concept of risk.
“Governance is not just about science; it’s also about society,” argues NTU’s risk research center director Chou, citing the example of the European Union. Starting in 2001, Chou explains, the EU began stressing communication with the public on major scientific projects because “there may be conflicts and resistance, but society has a learning curve.”
The most practical approach is to bring representatives of different interest groups into the discussion during the risk assessment stage, in contrast to the prevailing model where experts lead and control the agenda and have the final say. Under the more inclusive approach, as experts review a project, civil groups can also participate and the process is made as transparent as possible. Once the review is complete, the government is responsible for the final decision.
But when government and civil society converse, the dialogue often gets hijacked by mutual distrust. One example of this came last year when the government considered lifting a ban on food imports from five Japanese prefectures that were affected by radioactive fallout from the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Because the issue involved economic and political considerations, the public did not trust what the government was saying on the safety of the food items, leading to serious opposition to the plan.
“People around the world have less and less trust in governments and experts,” Legislator Wu says.
Only by creating independent assessment and communications bodies, making the decision-making process open and transparent, and communicating more effectively with the public can people begin to regain trust in the food safety decisions of public health authorities.
Grassroots Revolution through Education
In today’s world of increasing uncertainty, changes in communications models and governance are signaling that decision-making mindsets are also changing, especially in the food safety arena. Yet while controls are widely imposed on certain risk factors such as pesticides, food additives and production processes, safety issues still crop up.
“Right now it looks like there are many choices, but behind the scenes they are actually controlled by no more than a handful of big companies. Consumers should take back their food rights from the hands of the big players,” says Warren H.J. Kuo, the recently retired National Taiwan University Department of Agronomy professor, in advocating a “grassroots revolution” to take back food rights through education.
The grassroots revolution is a process involving a series of movements, such as the “slow food” movement, which stresses that the keys to avoiding unsafe food are fresh, local ingredients and simple dishes, and “good farming” practices that generate excellent products and advocate simpler methods of processing to mitigate problems.
Kuo says young people rarely cook at home anymore because the education system went awry, and he believes that only through education can the situation be salvaged and control be taken out of the hands of big food conglomerates.
For that education to have an impact and turn things around, however, it needs to start now.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier