Over the past two weeks, Taiwan has been experiencing yet another major food safety crisis, as illegal gutter oil was used in manufactured commercial use oil products, and made its way into many of the popular food products in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

So far, more than 1,300 food products and at least 235 food companies and processing plants in Taiwan have been affected. The origin of the illegal oil in question is now believed to come from a man surnamed Kuo and his six partners, who were found producing low quality oil from industrial oils and leftovers. That questionable oil was then sold to many oil refinery plants, including Chang Guann, a main supplier of commercial use oil.

While officials from Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration are still trying to identify food products made with the tainted oil, this incident has again raised alarm about Taiwan’s food safety, as well as relevant legal and procedural flaws. However, the scandal may teach lessons beyond which products to avoid.

In Taiwan’s industrial past, the food production industry was celebrated for its ability to produce near-authentic food products with low costs, mainly due to its brilliantly use of artificial ingredients in the production process. Albert Tzeng, research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands, points out that Taiwan’s food industry has been applying less costly and artificial ingredients to food manufacturing for three decades, but only in recent years did the norm of eating “healthy” and “natural” became popular. Many of the old-time chemical tricks are now considered fraudulent and undesirable. Tseng argues that this signals a transition from a technology-based to naturalized food production, which requires changes in the regulatory system.

Additionally, the establishment of the inspection mechanism and brand reputation shows the impossibility to ensure a flawless food production process. Tseng points out that any comprehensive inspection is technically and financially unaffordable because the complexity of modern food production process surpasses the ability of any existing food inspecting mechanism. In other words, the industrialization of food production is a process of social evolution, because as human beings have used “technology” to turn hazards into controllable risks for decades, and we are witnessing yet another rung in the ladder.

Also, the media’s sensationalization of the incident plays a significant role in how the general public perceives the scandal. Tseng said that the media in Taiwan often make comments based on speculated theories, and at times, exaggerate the negative effects by using the word “poisonous” before experts or food inspection official release their testing results. The balance between ingredients and final products, or scientific facts and ethical standards, took a backseat in the media’s reporting. While scientists focus on the final product and scientifically supported findings of artificial ingredients’ actual harm to our health, the general public often cares more about the source of ingredients and ensuring unnatural substances being blended with the final product. The gap between these two camps damages the mutual trust about Taiwan’s food safety in general.

Currently, Taiwan’s Food and Drug Authority is continuing their efforts to track down all polluted food products, and the tally is expected to increase in the coming days.

(Feature photo of a Chinese restaurant, by KellyB on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

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