Concerns over food safety build in Taiwan after scandals

Incidents involving how edible oil companies label their products have damaged trust in entire industry trying to rebuild its reputation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 5:01am

The recent announcement by the Taiwanese government that a new task force would help stamp out food safety problems was greeted with scepticism by many of the island's consumers - after all they had heard such promises before.

"I don't know what to eat now," said Chen Miao-ling, 52, who recently lost her husband to liver cancer, an illness she thinks might be tied to the food they had eaten.

Chen was not alone in her apprehension; incidents involving food safety stretching back to the start of the year have stoked public fears that what they find on their supermarket shelves cannot be trusted.

The wave of scandals has battered the government's attempts to rebuild the island's reputation for strong quality control over its food manufacturing industry, following the revelation in 2011 that soft drink makers had used industrial plasticiser as a clouding agent in some of its products. The substitution saved them money on the more expensive palm oil, but the chemical can severely lead to health problems in children.

In the latest scare, health authorities on October 31 slapped a record fine of NT$1.85 billion (HK$487 million) on Chang Chi Foodstuff Factory for selling adulterated oil products.

The company had mixed olive oil with the cheaper cottonseed variety and, to make it look purer, began in 2006 to add a controlled colouring agent, copper chlorophyllin.

"We have been using the Tatung brand oil products [made by Chang Chi] for years, and I wonder if the death of my husband had anything to do with this," said Chen, whose husband died last year of liver cancer.

There is no direct proof the substances are related to any deaths, but two prominent doctors, Dr Chiang Shou-shan and Dr Yen Tsung-hai, have both said excessive consumption of the agent would damage the liver and cause cirrhosis.

More than 3,000 consumers have applied to join a class-action lawsuit over the adulterated products, according to local media reports. The Consumer Protection Commission would file the lawsuit on their behalf, according to government of Changhua county, where the company is based.

At least one of the companies Chang Chi supplied has been caught up in the scandal. On Saturday, Formosa Oilseed Processing was fined NT$15 million and its executives were forced to apologise after authorities found it had intentionally mislabelled six cooking oils as pure. Formosa had received at least two of the oils from Chang Chi, the Health Bureau said.

Health authorities have also levied a NT$300 million fine against Flavor Full Foods, the world's second largest sesame oil producer, for selling sesame and 23 other so-called pure oil products mixed with cottonseed oil since 2009. Following the soft drinks scandal two years ago, the government of the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, vowed a comprehensive response to end food scares in Taiwan.

"We must take proactive action and strengthen our inspection of staple food products for possible irregularities," Ma said on October 23.

Taiwan currently leaves food quality control up to the manufacturers, with the government carrying out random checks. It moved to bolster the system through amendments to the Governing Food Sanitation Act, made in June, which lay out more severe fines for wilful violations of the law. Authorities have also called on the public to play a role, reminding them they are entitled to 5 per cent of any fine levied against the company they flag for concern.

On Thursday, Premier Jiang Yi-huah announced the establishment of an inter-ministerial investigation task force that will conduct additional checks on so-called high-risk foods, including soy sauces, cooking oil, rice, bread, eggs, milk and food bought through group-buying websites.

But food sanitation experts said the government's efforts were not enough. In addition to increasing the number of food inspectors from the current 784, they suggest the government continually review and update inspection techniques to counter any loopholes that may arise.

"The government should set up a food supply source data bank system that can connect with the world and help authorities trace the origins and sources of the food in question," said Kenneth Chan Yeh-lin, head of the Taiwan Food Industry Development Association.