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Taiwan's Food Scare

When Will the Government Get in Gear?


When Will the Government Get in Gear?


Three years ago, the Control Yuan submitted proposals to reform Taiwan's food safety oversight system, but as the recent DEHP scandal shows, the government failed to act. Who is to be held accountable?



When Will the Government Get in Gear?

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 474 )

The time to act is now.

The afternoon sun bores through the windows of the Control Yuan, baking the office space like an oven. Inside, Control Yuan member Cheng Jen-hung is hunched over his desk scrutinizing the 2008 "Investigative Report on Food Additive Safety Regulations and Standards," published pursuant to his follow-up investigation in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal, and the subsequent "National Survey of Safety and Hygiene of Foodstuffs," the results of which were released last year.

His mood, however, grows increasingly dark and cold.

Early this year, Cheng, along with Yang Mei-ling, Wu Feng-shan, Liu Yuh-shan and Hung Chao-nan, fellow Control Yuan members charged with oversight of food safety issues, met to discuss the results of the preceding three years of supervisory efforts. All were of the opinion that the Department of Health, as the competent authority on matters of public health, had been derelict in its duties to ensure food safety.

Following revelations of melamine-tainted milk powder being sold in Taiwan, Lin Fang-yue resigned as health minister, followed in quick succession by Yeh Chin-chuan and Yaung Chih-liang. In Cheng Jen-hung's view, during their tenures as health minister, Yeh and Yaung continued to maintain a passive, even dismissive, approach toward the Control Yuan's food safety reports. Even when visiting the Executive Yuan on inspection tours, Control Yuan members took the opportunity to present the results of their reports to the Cabinet for two consecutive years. But their efforts came to naught.

"At the time we decided we'd give it another six-months period of observation, then take action," Cheng says. Little did they know, before those six months had expired, another food additive incident would erupt in front of the public eye.

"No one, from the public health authorities to the Executive Yuan, took the problems with food as a serious public issue," Cheng sighs.

"Taking the problems with food as a serious public issue" is a stance Cheng has long advocated, and it constitutes the point on which he and the Department of Health evince the greatest divergence.

Action Fails to Move DOH

Putting the interest of the people foremost is nothing new for Cheng. Beginning as a volunteer with the Consumer Foundation up through stints as secretary-general and chairman of that organization, Cheng has long been a crusader for the public interest, though many of his colleagues in that endeavor were unaware of his "day job" as a professor at Chinese Culture University's Department of Geography.

The Consumer Foundation's public stature was at its highest during his tenure as secretary-general. That period saw the foundation calling at least three press conferences a week, and Cheng's slight, erudite figure could be seen in the media on a daily basis arguing himself hoarse on behalf of the public interest. He helped expose the overuse of preservatives in tapioca balls (as used in "pearl milk tea"), and filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the members of the Alexander Gym chain when it suddenly closed without warning. Where there was an issue involving consumer rights, Cheng would be right there in the thick of it.

Cheng is a big believer in the story of David and Goliath – "one small stone in the hand can be enough to fell a giant." Yet when the use of the plasticizer DEHP in fruit juice and other beverages and foods recently came to light, Cheng was overcome with a deep sense of powerlessness. He was upset to discover that despite holding an office with the power to supervise government, there were boundaries to his powers, and his capacity to effect change was actually quite limited.

Recalling the course of his interactions with public health officials, Cheng laughs bitterly, saying that during his time with the Consumer Foundation he felt as if no amount of force he could exert would effect movement in a positive direction. Now, in his capacity as a Control Yuan member, with the official powers that position entails, he says he might be able to move things an inch or two in the right direction, but still falls far short of his ideal objective.

In the wake of the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal, Cheng set forth a proposal for reform. Yeh Chin-chuan, appointed interim health minister and seen as something of a "fixer," reacted to Cheng's reform proposal by merely setting the stage for the formation of the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration. But with scant funds or manpower, the FDA has proven unable to achieve any substantive impact.

Not particularly adept at criticizing others, Cheng would only imply that while Yeh had put the melamine scandal to rest, in effect putting out the fire, there had been a failure to seize the initiative and rectify the situation in a timely fashion so as to head off issues that subsequently arose.

Today, after three years, he is perusing anew the five major shortcomings in government oversight set forth in his November 2008 reform proposal to the Department of Health: inadequate safeguards, inconsistent policies, disorderly emergency responses, the lack of necessary regulatory mechanisms, and mismanagement. To date, none of these issues has been adequately resolved, Cheng contends.

On the eve of his departure from office as health minister, Yeh's successor, Yaung Chih-liang, publicly lashed out at the Control Yuan, saying the government watchdog's 758 formal directives, rectifications and investigations had run DOH staff ragged. Yaung concluded by directly naming Cheng as a troublemaker.

Yaung took particular umbrage at a Control Yuan directive involving the cleanliness of pig blood cake, grousing: "They even want to rectify pig blood cake – no one's ever lost their life from eating that!"

Cheng offered little in his own defense at the time, but in the context of today and the events that have transpired since, his regrets are legion.

"Now, has anyone lost their life due to DEHP? No …" But he believes that may be only because the implications of DEHP ingestion have yet to be established. Anything that human beings ingest should be a big deal to public health authorities, Cheng believes.

Establishing 3 Key Checks on Food Safety

As the DEHP scandal continues to grow, it becomes increasingly clear that the Department of Health has not learned the lessons of history. Cheng is determined to act anew, again proposing a set of recommendations to establish a comprehensive system of checks to ensure food safety.

1. Establishing a mechanism for handling food hygiene at the source

At the time of the melamine scandal, the Control Yuan harshly criticized the Department of Health for lacking any mechanism to actively root out safety or hygiene problems in foods or food additives.

That mechanism must begin with checks at the source, with a three-tiered system of safeguards. Foremost is that the source of food ingredients and additives must be clear. Suppliers must be required to produce certification of compliance with safety and hygiene standards. Food producers must be required to routinely submit ingredients and additives for inspection and testing to ensure they avoid being hoodwinked by suppliers. Finally, the DOH must conduct random end testing of food products to decrease the possibility of substandard products entering the consumer chain.

Cheng regularly submits samples of tea leaves consumed during Control Yuan meetings for testing to ensure they retain no traces of agricultural chemicals, and has further directed the government watchdog's general affairs staff to require companies bidding for supply contracts to provide testing certification showing compliance with minimum standards in order to qualify for the procurement process. This insistence on the source check undoubtedly means that the tea consumed on the premises of the Control Yuan is among the safest in Taiwan.

2. DOH needs comprehensive resource planning, greater agility

Laboratory facilities, from the central government down to the local level, operate in Hydra-like fashion, with the health authorities of even city and county governments casting a wide net, accepting sample submissions from the general public for testing and resulting in a single sample potentially being tested by multiple labs. Such a scattering of resources hinders their overall effective usage.

The DOH should integrate all government labs to facilitate the allocation of problem product samples for testing within the shortest possible timeframe, to better protect the safety of the general public.

At times when there is no crisis, the government should still stay focused on the possibility of an emergent incident involving food safety. It should conduct simulations and drills regarding human resource allocation, resource management, dissemination of information, and the execution of policy decisions. And it should establish and/or revise standard operating procedures.

3. Most importantly, top officials must accept responsibility

Food safety issues are not merely the province of the health minister, but also involve the premier, given the pivotal role he plays in personnel appointment and budget allocation.

Thus some of the responsibility for the food safety issues that have arisen over the past three years extends to Liu Chao-shiuan and Wu Den-yi, the two premiers that have served during the present Ma Ying-jeou administration.

"We're going to clarify whether or not they issued appropriate directives, or their ministries took relevant measures, whether things were put off or even not acted upon. We'll see where the connections are as the issues come into focus," Cheng says.

Left unsaid, however, is the notion that if the government had acted earlier, these incidents would have come to light earlier, even if they could not have entirely been avoided. It is a question that constantly runs through Cheng's mind.

Yet, having gone through four health ministers and two premiers over the past three years, who is the Control Yuan to ultimately hold responsible?

We can only hope that change will start with the current occupants of those offices.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy