Taipei Times: Are health officials fumbling again?

EDITORIAL: Are health officials fumbling again?

Monday, Oct 20, 2008, Page 8
News that the toxic chemical melamine was discovered in yet another food product imported from China, although shocking, should come as no surprise to consumers, given that country’s track record on food safety.

In light of this latest scare, in which imports of ammonium bicarbonate — a leavening agent used in cookies and pastries — were found to contain worryingly high levels of the industrial chemical, health authorities should take quick and effective action.

Instead of asking which other products may be contaminated, health authorities should be asking which products aren’t affected and how many other dangerous industrial chemicals in foodstuffs imported across the Taiwan Strait are being unwittingly consumed by shoppers.

A chemical industry report by Dutch company DSM states that China is one of the world’s largest producers and the world’s biggest exporter of melamine. There is a serious surplus of the chemical in China, the report notes, so it should come as no surprise that unscrupulous food manufacturers — of which there are obviously many — are coming up with innovative ways to use it.

The Chinese government clearly has little or no control over domestic food safety standards and cannot guarantee the safety of products its manufacturers export overseas.

It is therefore up to the Department of Health to guarantee the safety of imported foods from Chinese manufacturers. If it cannot do so, then all such imports from China should be banned regardless of the cost to local companies. Public health must be the first priority.

The government’s reaction to the tainted-milk scandal was woefully inadequate, but this was partly dictated by its new, low-key approach to the cross-strait relationship.

Hamstrung by its desire to curry favor with Beijing and its policy of denying Taiwanese statehood, it has been afraid to criticize China outright. Instead it has resorted to shady company-to–company dealings at the behest of Beijing, while holding meaningless international conferences to set non-binding and effectively useless “action levels” on safe quantities of melamine in food.

Speaking on the melamine scandal, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) recently said “it is absolutely impermissible to sacrifice people’s lives and health in exchange for temporary economic development.”

It comes to something when it is the Chinese premier, rather than the Taiwanese president, who says what people here have been waiting to hear: that companies should not put profits before people. But then five months in, this is what people have come to expect from our increasingly fumbling and unpopular administration.

Baking industry sources have said that health authorities knew about this latest scandal for several days before releasing the information. If this is true, this means the new administration has already lowered itself to the level of the Chinese communists, notorious for holding back news of health scandals.

The government has been in the news recently over its apparent attempts to limit the Central News Agency’s negative reports about China.

Any process that involves a democratically elected government holding back crucial information at the expense of its own people is a sign that the authorities are in dire trouble and need to rethink their priorities.

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