The Next Minister of Health and Welfare Will Also Have to Step Down
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 13, 2014
Executive Summary: Food safety scandals have harmed Taiwan's economic development, making
food safety a national security issue. Following wave upon wave of food
safety crises, the Executive Yuan should have learned its lesson. It
must establish an inter-ministerial oversight system. The new Minister
of Health and Welfare must shoulder responsibility. He can no longer
merely issue vague suggestions. He must strengthen food safety
inspection mechanisms. He must not pass the buck for first line
inspections onto local health authorities. He must have the courage to
oversee upstream food manufacturers. Otherwise food safety crises will
never end. And the Minister of Health and Welfare's rice bowl will no
longer be assured.
Full Text Below:
The Executive Yuan is actively seeking a new Minister of Health and Welfare. We can confidently predict that unless the government makes structural reforms to food safety management, whoever assumes the post will soon be forced to step down. We are confident because former Minister of Health and Welfare Wen-Ta Chiu, in a parting shot, predicted that another food safety crisis would erupt in short order. Sure enough, the new ministerial candidates have yet to be determined, but another, even more serious incident has occurred, in which feed oil was mixed with edible oil, once again undermining Taiwan's reputation as a Mecca for gourmets.
Food Safety crises are fated to occur repeatedly, because government heads do not understand what they must do to ensure food safety. The food safety crises are the result of unscrupulous merchants trying to make a dishonest buck. The government has failed its role as watchdog. For this it cannot evade responsibility. Before Wen-Ta Chiu accepted the post, he complained about the media's coverage of food safety incidents. He argued that central government agencies were merely responsible for promoting policy and studying and amending laws and regulations. He considered health inspections a local government responsibility. Chiu's thinking represented the Ministry of Health and Welfare's long held misconceptions. This sort of thinking was the reason five days after Chiu stepped down an even more serious food safety crisis erupted.
The bottom line is that Taiwan is small in area, and its food industry network is closely knit. Food production chain coopetition and the division of labor are closely related. If an upstream food company's product is contaminate, the impact affects everyone downstream. Food science and technology are constantly evolving. The relationship between the two is close. New technologies and products are rapidly introduced into the production chain. Meanwhile government regulations, inspection standards, and inspection methods have failed to keep up with the times. As a result food safety crises can erupt at any time, The scale of these crises are increasing. Therefore the Executive Yuan cannot simply convene inter-ministerial meetings to address the problem after an outbreak has occurred. Rather it must establish a comprehensive, long term oversight and prevention mechanism.
The USA, Japan, Germany, and other advanced countries have also experienced rancid oil food safety incidents. After their painful lessons, they established new systems. For example, they require restaurants to report the volume of oil they take in and the volume of rancid oil they take out. U.S. regulations require all rancid oil to be collected and processed by government agencies. This prevents unscrupulous operators from recovering the oil, refining it, and reselling it as edible oil for a profit. Japan and the United States have adopted the same approach. They also require that the recycled oil have toxic castor oil added to it. That makes impossible for the recycling industry to resell the oil as edible oil. Instead, it is made into biodiesel.
The Health Department was the predecessor to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The Health Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs introduced the recycling of waste cooking oil into biodiesel. But sludge from the biodiesel blocked fuel lines, therefore the policy was terminated in May of this year. As a result, large volumes of waste oil entered the production chain, poisoning the public. The conversion of waste cooking oil into biodiesel was sound policy. A technical glitch led to its premature termination. That was a shame. The Executive Yuan will call for inter-ministerial coordination to solve the problem of sludge obstructing fuel lines. This is not a valid reason to discontinue a sound policy.
The Department of Health and Welfare must get to the root of the problem. It must rethink food safety oversight. It must exercise control over food at its source. The new Minister of Health and Welfare must alter his mindset. He must be bold. If food can be properly controlled at its source, downstream food manufacturers may violate food safety laws. But the damage will be limited and more readily controlled. It is less likely to affect Taiwan as a whole. The manufacturers of source ingredients is not the purview of local government authorities. The central government Ministry of Health and Welfare must assume responsibility. The Executive Yuan must establish an inter-ministerial mechanism. It must establish a downstream food chain oversight mechanism. Taiwan has too many tiny food stalls. Oversight mechanisms must work in combination with market mechanisms.
There are thousands of legal food additives. As long as there are profits to be made, people will willingly commit even hanging crimes. The slightest omission on the part of the government, and someone will find a legal loophole by which to make illicit profits. Large scale food manufacturers such as Chang Guann and Cheng Yi, must exercise closer oversight. The Ministry of Health and Welfare shoulder a heavy responsibility. Downstream food manufacturers are scattered all over the province. These will be overseen by county and city health bureaus.
Once Taiwan is admitted to the WTO, it must eliminate any hint of trade barriers. It must open itself to a steady stream of processed food imports. Many food plants process imported raw materials for redistribution. These sources can establish a border oversight system. This must be coordinated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and implemented by the responsible agencies. They must not pass the buck at every turn. They must transcend county and municipal level lines, in order to uncover violations.
The Food Safety and Health Administration Law has been amended six times in seven years. It should be one of the most stringent food regulations in the world. The Ministry of Health and Welfare is determined to punish violations of food safety. It is amending the law post haste, increasing fines tenfold.
But this is a piecemeal, stop-gap measure. Health inspectors have the resources to investigate scofflaws. They lack only criminal investigation authority. The new Minister of Health and Welfare can no longer cite the law as an excuse to do nothing.
Food safety scandals have harmed Taiwan's economic development, making food safety a national security issue. Following wave upon wave of food safety crises, the Executive Yuan should have learned its lesson. It must establish an inter-ministerial oversight system. The new Minister of Health and Welfare must shoulder responsibility. He can no longer merely issue vague suggestions. He must strengthen food safety inspection mechanisms. He must not pass the buck for first line inspections onto local health authorities. He must have the courage to oversee upstream food manufacturers. Otherwise food safety crises will never end. And the Minister of Health and Welfare's rice bowl will no longer be assured.