Taiwanese Consumers Learn a Lesson
Bargains Don't Come Cheap
Recent food safety scares in Taiwan have sparked boycotts of a major player, but consumers need to do more, including focusing on value instead of simply on how much they get for their money.
Bargains Don't Come CheapBy Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 559 )
After a fifth food safety scare in Taiwan in three years in early October, this time involving subsidiaries of the Ting Hsin International Group that used oils meant for animal feed into their edible oils, the public had had enough.
From religious groups calling for Ting Hsin Group products to be pulled from schools to netizens urging a boycott of all Ting Hsin products and services and even banks calling off a planned syndicated loan to the conglomerate, all of Taiwan seemed to rise as one in outrage against the company.
"All that Taiwan had left was the small but sure pleasure of 'eating.' 'Sure' implies certainty. Nobody thought that even this would go awry," says Lai Hsiao-fen, the secretary-general of the Homemakers United Foundation, an environmental group.
Amid the latest edible oils scare and the resistance, outrage and despair it provoked, however, new consumer values related to food have begun to percolate. Designer Ho Kuei-yu, who resides in France, was with her child at an Italian restaurant for dinner one night when she heard the owner tell some young diners: "This lasagna at 8.50 euros is not at all expensive! What you are looking at is its volume. We who make it see the ingredients used in it and its weight. What you may think is a small piece of lasagna actually contains flour, butter, cream and cheese. They are all nutritious ingredients."
"Parisians' attitudes toward restaurants are 'you get what you pay for,' and 'if it's cheap it can't be good," Ho wrote in an independent blog for CommonWealth Magazine.
"What people care about is not CP but CV (cost/value ratio)," she wrote, explaining that because the French cook a lot themselves, they know how much a good piece of beef or a kilo of organic carrots should cost. When a restaurant in France depends on low prices to attract customers, she says, most people assume that the ingredients it uses are probably not very good; a restaurant can charge high prices, if its ingredients and culinary skills are good enough to warrant them.
In Taiwan, on the other hand, whether it's big marketplaces selling snacks and drinks or TV food shows extolling the virtues of small breakfast shops holding out against raising prices, the focus is on consumers "getting the most for their money." But that ignores the reality that with good food comes the cost of good ingredients and hard work.
Because of Taiwan's sluggish wage growth over the past decade, any price increase inevitably triggers waves of anger and criticism from consumers and the media. When news emerged, for example, that traditional Taiwanese restaurant chain Formosa Chang was considering raising the price of a large bowl of braised pork and rice from NT$64 to NT$68, a huge public outcry ensued, forcing the restaurant to drop the idea. The company's chairman even had to appear in public and apologize for mulling the price increase to quell the storm.
In this environment where the pursuit of "cheap and big bowls" of food prevails, vendors do everything they can to lower costs, with some willing to cut corners. Local consumers, in effect, have indirectly become promoters of unhealthy competition.
Having experienced many food storms, Taiwanese consumers may finally find it time to relinquish their obsession with cost and volume (the cost/performance ratio) and think about food from a more sophisticated perspective.
Alienated from Real Food
Taiwanese love to eat. Indeed, it's a big part of local culture. But Homemakers United Foundation's Lai contends that for many Taiwanese, "eating" represents social activities that are not focused on the food itself and that in fact are alienated from the food chain. Taiwanese are only curious about what goes in their mouths or what they have a yearning for, Lai says. But when it comes to the structure of the food industry, how their food was produced or what effects the food they eat will have on their health, they are not particularly concerned.
"This is a good opportunity to reflect on our relationship with food," she says.
After the most recent edible oil scandal erupted, nutritionist and food aficionado Andy Hsu also talked about "attitudes." If people, and especially those who work in the food or catering industries, have the right attitude about food, they should be concerned by slight changes, he argues. If something seems strange, they should study it even more carefully. Cooking oils, for example, can result in different flavors if they are used at different temperatures or are pressed from a different raw material, he says, bringing to mind one of the edible oil scandals in which an oil processor passed off cottonseed oil and artificial coloring as olive oil. But when Hsu visited several edible oil vendors following the food safety scare, the managers of the businesses told him that consumers are not worried about taste; they only care about price.
Hsu points to the irony of many Taiwanese appreciating the difference between "dark roast" and "light roast" varieties of coffee but not having any similar in-depth knowledge of varying grades of sesame or tea seed oils produced in Taiwan or the ability to differentiate them.
He has found that local consumers care mostly about price, want instant information and believe celebrity endorsements and guarantees. Hsu, who studied food science, says the question he most often hears is: "What brand do you recommend?"
"We don't want in-depth thinking or understanding. All we want is the 'dumbed-down' approach," he says with a sigh.
"If we don't straighten out our attitudes, it won't matter how many rules or practices we have or how much tracking of food sources we do. They can all be defeated." If the acidity of edible oils is too high, for example, an alkaline can be added to neutralize it, according to Hsu, who argues that any problem can be covered up.
Taiwanese consumers may feel they are fighting poor practices in the food industry by boycotting the products of one conglomerate. But if they really hope to restore Taiwan's image as a food kingdom, there is plenty more they can do.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier