Food scandals in Taiwan
Tainted products also poison the president’s chances of re-election
Jun 16th 2011 | TAIPEI | from the print edition
TAIWAN’S biggest-ever food scare began when government inspectors testing sports drinks and soft drinks last month detected dangerous levels of industrial plasticisers. These are normally used to make everything from shoes to hosepipes more flexible. Since then, the plasticisers have been found in a range of foods and drinks. The crisis has also gone firmly international as China, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines have withdrawn Taiwanese products from supermarket shelves. Taiwanese commentators are wondering how the government can live the scandal down.
Some 900 products have been pulled from nearly 40,000 Taiwanese shops. Hospitals have been flooded with worried parents seeking check-ups for their children. Diets have swiftly changed. Out have gone processed drinks and even ice cream.
The problems have been traced to two upstream suppliers of food additives, Yu Shen Chemical and Pin Han Perfumery. Among other things, plasticisers were substituted for palm oil as clouding agents in drinks. One plasticiser, known as DEHP, is a possible carcinogen, and thought capable of wreaking havoc with children’s reproductive organs. The inspectors discovered levels far in excess of the daily allowed intake. Insiders have told investigators that products may have been doctored for decades.
Any hopes that the scare might end quickly were dashed when contamination fears spread to pharmaceuticals. Local pharmaceutical companies have recalled a dozen licensed drugs, and on June 11th GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational drug giant, was ordered to recall two antibiotics when traces of plasticiser were found—though, company and government insist, at way below maximum recommended levels.
Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, describes government raids on shops and suppliers as Taiwan’s biggest-ever effort in fighting food contamination. Executives from the offending companies have been arrested. Mr Ma himself, along with prime minister Wu Den-yih and other ministers, donned workmen’s helmets and fireproof jackets and ceremonially burned contaminated goods in Changhua county. Mr Ma described their operations as “mopping up the battlefield”. Government officials in eight other counties also staged incinerations. It is anyone’s guess whether this propaganda show, worthy of China’s Communists across the Taiwan Strait, instilled confidence.
Taiwan’s once robust reputation as a reliable and safe exporter of food has been dented. Mr Ma’s own reputation for competence has also been damaged by his government’s slow and muddled response to the crisis. Mr Ma is seeking re-election early next year. At the least, argues Hsu Yung-ming at Taipei’s Soochow University, the scandals may affect Mr Ma’s choice of running mate. His favourite was assumed to have been Mr Wu. But with the prime minister now a possible lightning rod for dissatisfaction over the tainted products, Mr Ma may have to think again. Other potential candidates are hardly inspiring. But Mr Ma will be keen to distance himself from any more cabinet embarrassments.