Rancid Oil Crisis: Government Cannot Disown Responsibility
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
September 11, 2014
Summary: The CIB Southern Region Crime Fighting Center uncovered an underground
factory engaged in the extraction of cooking oil from rancid leftovers.
Its discovery touched off a new wave of food safety concerns. Over the
past week the government has become increasingly vocal. More and more
manufacturers have been implicated. More and more people are frightened.
The government's competence has been called into question. More
importantly, the laws have been shown to be inadequate, since they
allowed manufacturers to commit these crimes. The operators involved
lacked both conscience and social responsibility. What they did made
people's hair stand on end. We are now forced to ask, does the per
capita income on Taiwan still exceed 20,000 USD? Is the character of its
people still its greatest tourist attraction?
Full Text Below:
The CIB Southern Region Crime Fighting Center uncovered an underground factory engaged in the extraction of cooking oil from rancid leftovers. Its discovery touched off a new wave of food safety concerns. Over the past week the government has become increasingly vocal. More and more manufacturers have been implicated. More and more people are frightened. The government's competence has been called into question. More importantly, the laws have been shown to be inadequate, since they allowed manufacturers to commit these crimes. The operators involved lacked both conscience and social responsibility. What they did made people's hair stand on end. We are now forced to ask, does the per capita income on Taiwan still exceed 20,000 USD? Is the character of its people still its greatest tourist attraction?
The rancid oil crisis has dealt a serious blow to Taiwan's long-held image as a "realm of haute cuisine." The US weekly Time Magazine reported on Taiwan's rancid oil scandal. Even the Mainland, which has long been troubled by food safety concerns, has urged the public to exercise caution with food products from Taiwan. Shanghai's Food and Drug Administration has removed 8,700 Taiwan foods from the shelves, and requested certification for future food sales from Taiwan.
The people as a whole are paying a heavy price for a single black-hearted manufacturer. We have expressed dismay. We have leveled criticisms. We must now seek constructive solutions. We must guard against such food safety crises in the future. A single black-hearted company produced rancid oil. Yet over a thousand companies have been implicated. They include major food manufacturers and reputable old line brands. Clearly our food production, management, and quality control systems have blind spots. Our job is to identify these blind spots, shine a light on them, and eliminate them. Three blind spots stand out in particular.
One. GMP failure. Many giant GMP companies have been implicated. This has led to criticism that the GMP system is worthless. Some even advocate its elimination. Elimination could be dangerous. An entire system should not be elminated due to a single case. The GMP system contains weaknesses, including the role of government grants, and the lack of consumer representatives among GMP members. This leads to concerns over "players acting as referees." This undermines the credibility of the GMP as a watchdog for food safety. Once the storm has passed, GMP operations should be subjected to comprehensive review, to bolster its gatekeeper function.
Two. Food safety inspection failure. During the turmoil, the Food and Drug Safety Department announced the test results for four rancid oil samples. They concluded that the oil would inflict no immediate harm on human health and gave it a "green light." This caused an uproar. The Food and Drug Safety Department added fuel to the fire. It illustrated how not to conduct crisis management. Its "inspection" merely underscored the inadequacy of the food inspection mechanism.
Passing an inspection does not mean that a food stuff is harmless and healthful. That is a delusion. Technology has advanced. Black-hearted merchants have improved their' refining techniques. Unscrupulous manufacturers are alchemists whose refining techniques have evolved to cheat the tests. When the enemy becomes more powerful, one must match its strength. The agencies responsible cannot rely exclusively on testing. Many food safety and chemical experts have proposed increasing the number of items inspected. They have recommended improvements in test methods. The agencies in charge should carefully study their recommendations and make good use of them.
Three. Government failures. This can be divided into central and local government failures. Strictly speaking, the first two forms of failure are central government level failures. The central government is responsible for legislation and policy. It is responsible for mending leaks in the system. The rancid oil scandal raises the issue of manpower shortages. It raises the question of whether we should emulate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Should we establish a "Food Safety Investigation Bureau" that integrates central and local level management? The question warrants further consideration.
Nor should local government failures be overlooked. As in the past, even when local governments shared responsibility, they invariably pass the buck onto the central government. The rancid oil scandal shocked the nation. Naturally the central government cannot shirk responsibility. But Guo Liecheng's factory was located in Pingtung County. It too must assume responsibility.
People who lived around the Guo Liecheng factory could not stand the stench. They reported this to the Pingtung County Government repeatedly. Pingtung County authorities were the first line of defense in environmental protection and food safety. They failed to do their duty. Fortunately members of the public persevered. They redirected their efforts at the CIB Southern Region Crime Fighting Center. Only then was the scandal exposed. Otherwise, how much more rancid oil would the nation have swallowed because the Pingtung County Government sat on its hands? Yet during the search for the perpetrators, as with the Kaohsiung gas explosion incident, the central government bore all the blame. Local government got a free pass. The Pingtung County Government virtually disappeared from awareness during the search for responsible parties.
The search for responsibile parties must not become an excuse to lynch people in anger. The punishment must fit the crime. If two parties are responsible, one cannot punish one while giving the other a free pass. Selective enforcement and disproportionate punishment will only make the problem worse. Disproportionate punishment will merely encourage those responsible -- such as the Pingtung County Government -- to act even more unscrupulously, because they know they can get away with murder.
The above failures all demand systemic reform. The system must be reformed. But businesses must also have a sense of mission, and the public must remain vigilant. Both were missing in the food safety net. The recent controversy alerted the entire nation and forced it to reflect. We must not lose faith in the people of Taiwan. Guo Liecheng is a black-hearted businessman. But he does not represent everyone on Taiwan. The government must learn from its mistakes. It must address its blind spots, and prevent such scandals from recurring.