The Guardians of Food Safety Speak Out
Three top officials are in charge of Taiwan's food safety. As the public becomes increasingly alarmed at the chemicals present in the food they eat, what actions are these officials taking?
The Guardians of Food Safety Speak OutBy Rebecca Lin, Ching-Hsuan Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 493 )
The people of Taiwan are refusing to swallow how the system dishes out their meat.
With a recent profusion of news reports regarding ractopamine – a veterinary drug used as a feed additive to promote leanness in livestock – what should the government be doing to quell public alarm? How strict should the safety standards be to put the public at ease about what they may be eating? And what should the government do to plug loopholes in the food safety and inspection system?
Taiwan's top officials in charge of food safety are: Council of Agriculture minister Chen Bao-ji, Department of Health minister Wen-Ta Chiu, and Food and Drug Administration director-general Kang Jaw-Jou. CommonWealth Magazine recently sat down with all three, for a series of frank conversations about the problem of food additives and chemicals, and the policies they are pursuing to achieve a solution.
It Can't Keep Going On the Way It Has Been
When speaking with CommonWealth Magazine, Council of Agriculture minister Chen Bao-ji was forthright in acknowledging the challenges inherent in regulating the farming industry, but he also insistently defended the government's policies.
Following are highlights from that interview:
There is a certain instability in agricultural production. That instability requires treating livestock and crop diseases using drugs and ultimately hopefully sending healthful agricultural goods to market. It is our job to reduce that instability to the lowest possible levels.
When I was working in academia, I always emphasized that there were acceptable standards for all things and that those standards did not mean zero detection. In particular, with testing technology becoming more advanced, even if a sample tests out at 0.2 ppb, that may be considered safe in the context of the original standards.
However, whenever a problem arises with food products, consumers don't bother to educate themselves about the appropriate concepts, always remaining stuck on zero detection. Everybody likes the idea of safety, yet that idea is not the same as zero detection.
Reasonable use of veterinary drugs during the production process is necessary, and we need to firmly establish this idea.
The system of checks on food safety has improved dramatically in recent years. From food production to food processing there are specifically defined standards and procedures, but limitations imposed via costs and capabilities mean
that there will still be fish that slip through the net.
There is no way for us to achieve 100 percent inspection. No one in the world can. We can only beef up the original sampling size of the inspections. Some people ask: why is it possible for such goods to reach market? This is akin to laws requiring motorists to wear seat belts; there are still people who refuse to do so.
Cooperation among Local, Central Authorities
In the future, we may have to strengthen our treatment of those rotten apples who refuse to abide by the rules, amending relevant laws to impose harsher penalties.
But in enforcement, local authorities also play an important role, for example, imposing administrative penalties where violations are found. But in many cases local authorities have been loathe to act. Local leaders must take this issue seriously, undertaking
the appropriate reviews and regarding all in a fair, impartial manner.
As far as production and marketing records, the businesses involved have to show a willingness to go along. Aside from compulsory enforcement in Japan and the European Union, most of the rest of the world is on a voluntary basis. Whether Taiwan
should go in that direction merits some consideration, but we must reach a point of equilibrium between the nation's mode of production and the scale of agricultural operations.
This is going to be one of my major policy initiatives. We are now pushing ahead with a plan for production records for beef products, and the ROC Cattle Association is very happy about that, as it allows them to prove that their products are completely safe and hygienic.
I also am completely cognizant of the fact that there must be some structural changes in Taiwan's agricultural sector; it can't keep going on the way it has been.
Overhauling the Food and Drug Safety Act
In the face of widespread public concern over potentially tainted meat products, Department of Health minister Wen-Ta Chiu offered a spirited defense of the current administration, its policy decisions, and his team's efforts to make food safe. Following are highlights from his interview with CommonWealth Magazine:
The approach to the regulation of imported foodstuffs the world over has been incrementally phased, starting with a five percent inspection sampling size and then tightening to 20 to 50 percent and where necessary even 100 percent.
If total inspection is imposed too suddenly, it can be perceived as a sort of embargo and affect international trade.
But under the circumstances, I decided to reverse that logic, beginning with an inspection sampling size of 100 percent and, if circumstances permit, later cutting that to 20 percent. Depending on events as they develop, that could be further reduced to five percent. In this fashion we conducted more than 11,000 inspections in a year. That's a lot of inspections. Additionally, we have ordered local health bureaus to beef up inspections, whether of supermarkets, traditional markets or restaurants. In the last month these have resulted in 1,000 citations, including beef and pork products. We hope to restore the public's faith by addressing the issue from both angles.
The greater the scope of inspections, the greater the chance of uncovering a problem. But everything must be done according to procedure.
Following the plasticizing agent incidents last year, Food and Drug Administration director-general Kang Jaw-Jou and I were determined to turn each incident into the most positive learning experience possible.
To demonstrate our commitment to thorough reform, we basically overhauled the entire Food and Drug Safety Act, expanding it from its original 37 articles to 61 articles. We took the prior food safety issues and opened them all up for resolution. For example, we added risk management clauses. It's currently under review in the Executive Yuan.
For any agricultural chemical or veterinary drug the Council of Agriculture approves, we're going to set a maximum permissible residue limit. Right now, we've done that for almost all of them. With our current manpower, it's impossible to perform exhaustive inspections. But we still want to be as thorough as possible within the time frame of a month.
People have many concerns about ractopamine. We've gone through all the literature, and we have yet to find a single case of poisoning from eating beef containing ractopamine. If someone could show me a single instance where anyone was poisoned, I would not approve of this policy. I'm not going to do anything to violate my own conscience.
More Conservative than the Science
Peering from behind thick-lensed glasses, Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) Director-General Kang Jaw-Jou comes across as refined, but tough.
In mid-March, when lawmaker Liu Chien-kuo flat-out accused Kang of directing local health authorities to reduce the frequency of inspections of American beef, Kang fired back angrily that the DOH would never consider such a course of action, and if anyone had, he would resign his office. A shouting match quickly ensued at the podium.
"This is not about me personally. If a lawmaker asserts [such things] and you don't respond, it's the same as the tacit admission of the Department of Health, and I can't have this," Kang declares.
"The lawmakers can get pretty wild in their questioning sometimes. If it gets to the point where it seems like he can hardly stand it, that's the academic in him coming out," one legislative aide observes, adding Kang may not be "someone who is entirely suited to public life."
Kang is a professor at National Taiwan University College of Medicine's Graduate Institute of Toxicology, an academic researcher at heart, and "more conservative than the scientific evidence," according to Lee Qing-hao, a post-doctorate grad student of Kang's.
That he was able to cross over into public life is due to his standing as Taiwan's foremost food safety expert.
During his long career as a food safety researcher, he has engaged in numerous cooperative projects with the Department of Health, including on safety evaluations for genetically modified foods and assisting the department in setting up a database of food raw materials and ingredients.
In 2009, following a high-profile scandal involving melamine-tainted milk powder and an incident involving tainted deep frying oil at McDonald's, the Department of Health combined four of the agencies under its authority, the Bureau of Food Sanitation, the Bureau of Pharmaceutical Affairs, the Bureau of Food and Drug Analysis, and the National Bureau of Controlled Drugs, to consolidate and elevate regulatory authority within a single entity, the Food and Drug Administration.
Then health minister Yeh Chin-chuan was eager to call on Kang's expertise. And Kang was not the kind of scholar who preferred to remain ensconced in an ivory tower.
He has said that the things one learns should be put to use and that he's more valuable if he can serve society than salted away in a laboratory.
But it hasn't been without sacrifices.
"Professor Kang is a nationally respected toxicology expert, except now that he's a public official, no one trusts him," Minister Chiu chuckles.
Last year it was the plasticizing agent scandal; this year it's the ractopamine issue. With regulatory authority including not only food products, but also pharmaceuticals and medical instruments – all of which are hot-button issues – Kang works until midnight every day.
Just as the legislative session is adjourned at noon, a lawmaker strides up beside Kang and slaps Kang on the shoulder laughing: "Mr. Director-General, I thought you were going to collapse from exhaustion."
In steering what former Health Minister Yang Chih-liang referred to as the political minefield that is the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration, Kang Jaw-Jou must proceed with extreme caution indeed.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy