China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
September 16, 2014
Summary: The 2011 plasticizing agent crisis was followed by the 2013 contaminated oil crisis, which was in turn followed by the current rancid oil crisis. One food safety crisis has followed another. They have shaken public confidence. They have shaken the nation's foundations. President Ma Ying-jeou must consider whether to invoke the national security mechanism.
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The 2011 plasticizing agent crisis was followed by the 2013 contaminated oil crisis, which was in turn followed by the current rancid oil crisis. One food safety crisis has followed another. They have shaken public confidence. They have shaken the nation's foundations. President Ma Ying-jeou must consider whether to invoke the national security mechanism.
In recent years, one food safety crisis has followed another. The government and the public must realize that this is not an isolated event, but involves deep-rooted structural problems. Unless the structure is changed, food safety crises will continue to erupt. These food safety crises are akin to malignant tumors. They did not form overnight. In 2011 the plasticizer crisis erupted. Cheap industrial plasticizers were added to foods as clouding agents. But this could be traced back to the 1980s. In 2013, the contaminated oil crisis erupted. But as far back as the 1970s businessmen were mixing low-priced cottonseed oil with higher quality oil to make a dishonest profit. The current rancid oil crisis is not the first of its kind. In 1985 the De Tai Oil Company skimmed the oil from the surface of rancid leftovers and resold it as cheap vegetable oil at huge profits for 10 years.
These food safety crises are akin to malignant tumors. They have a long history behind them. Governments have come and gone. Blue and green parties have followed, one after the another. To cure the problem at its root, requires a structural diagnosis, institutional change, and conceptual transformation. It requires the president as head of state to mobilization every government agency at his disposal.
The management and control of food safety crises requires the legislature to amend the laws. In this regard, the president has the constitutional authority to mediate between the different branches of government. He can raise the issue to a higher level. He can show that the government attaches great importance to food safety and reassuring the public.
Invoking the national security mechanism may provoke charges of grandstanding. The presidential office might hesitate. Even so, President Ma should at least consider 2011, when the plasticizing agent incident erupted, or 2013, when fishermen from Taiwan were shot and killed by the Philippines government. He should organize a presidential-level ad hoc group, or convene a meeting at the national security level to assist the various ministries and integrate their efforts.
Raising the issue to a higher level is the proper response. Next, he must review current practices and propose substantive changes. This requires new laws, government oversight, and public morality.
Take new laws. In response to the rancid oil crisis, Premier Jiang Yi-hua advocated tougher punishments, increased fines, and other measures. Health Minister Wen-Ta Chiu proposed increasing the sentence for criminal industry practices from 5 years in prison to 15 years.
Leave aside for the moment whether this Draconian rhetoric is consistent with contemporary concern for the rule of law. Leave aside for the moment criticisms that harsher penalties are a patchwork quilt approach to crime. The penalties for Crime A can be steadily increased until they exceed the penalties for Crime B. This undermines the principle of balance and proportionality in criminal liability.
Merely amending the law to impose harsher penalties will not eliminate such behavior by black-hearted businessmen. For example, last year's contaminated oil incident contributed to amendments in the food safety laws, including harsher penalties. Yet one year later, the rancid oil crisis erupted. Now take the plasticizer crisis. Lai Chun-chieh and his wife headed up the Yu Shen Spice Company. They were sentenced to 12 years in prison. That is hardly a slap on the wrist. Yet it failed to prevent the reccurence of food safety incidents.
As we can see, even capital crimes still have unscrupulous businessmen willing to commit them. Therefore amending the law must not be simplistically equated with harsher penalties. What is necessary is systemic oversight of the entire manufacturing process, from farm to table. This must include product history, quality control testing, safety warnings, and food certification. Every link in the chain must be scrutinized and subject to institutional review.
Take government oversight. Amending the law to provide harsh penalties may allow society to undergo an emotional catharsis. But government enforcement methods and attitudes are the real key. Heavy penalties may make unscrupulous individuals pay a higher price for their crimes. But they cannot change the evil in their hearts. We must crackdown. We must not let anyone to slip through the net. We must not allow them to escape detection. Only then can we prevent such crimes beforehand.
The attitude held by the government and law enforcement during the rancid oil crisis was unacceptable. Society has progressed. Public expectations about food quality are much higher than before. The Food and Drug Agency adopted a "you won't die from eating it" attitude and gave rancid oil a green light, leaving people flabbergasted. Meanwhile scientific and technological progress and advances inchemical technology, have enabled unscrupulous businessmen to adopt a "see the standard, cheat the standard" approach to government testing. This has become another form of technological opportunism. The government, meanwhile, clings to the original tests. It is either too naive or too lazy.
The Food and Drug Agency's "greenlight consciousness" provides us with an indirect answer. Faced with a food safety crisis, the government should have a watchman's "redlight consciousness." It should adopt the same point of view as the public. It should apply either the same standards or even stricter standards. Only then can it truly act as a watchdog for food safety. When faced with unscrupulous operators using advances in chemical technology to cheat the government's food safety net, the government must keep pace or even keep ahead of new testing methods, It must develop new testing standards to prevent people from getting around them.
The third requirement is the elevation of public morality. This includes corporate social responsibility and increased public food safety awareness. Regarding the former, businesses must engage in collective review. They have been given a lesson in the procurement of raw materials. The food manufacturing process requires more stringent standards. Regarding the latter, the public on Taiwan did well. They exposed Yang Chi-cheng, who was responsible for the plasticizer poisoning incident. Elderly farmers undaunted by callous authorities, persisted and exposed those responsible for the rancid oil crisis. They are the guardians of food safety in Taiwan society. They are also real heroes who protected our health. Their spirit is worth emulating.
Finally, the key to a multitude of problems, is invariably the government. Is must not adopt a foot-dragging attitude. It must not hope to ride out the media storm and wait for public passions to die down. People do not need a pacifier to distract them. They need a government that will offer real solutions, and enable the people to avoid food safety nightmares to begin with.