Restoring Confidence in the Food Supply

Even after repeated food-safety incidents in Taiwan, the recent adulterated edible-oil crisis has come as a drastic shock due to the magnitude of its scope and the utter unscrupulousness of certain offenders. As an organization dedicated to ethical and responsible business practices as one of its core values, AmCham Taipei finds it deeply distressing that any companies could engage in such unconscionable behavior.

After many past warnings of fundamental problems in Taiwan’s food safety regime failed to bring solutions, it is now vital that the government put an effective system in place to restore confidence in the food supply. But in doing so, the authorities need to be mindful of potential pitfalls that may undercut the success of the endeavor.

Chief among these is the frequent past practice in Taiwan of enacting stringent legislation, but neglecting to follow up with equally strict enforcement. The end result is merely to penalize decent companies that take on the effort and expense of adhering to the letter of the law, while dishonest competitors cut corners without detection. Much of the responsibility in this country for actual enforcement resides with city and county-level governments. To ensure that laws and regulations are enforced properly and consistently, the central government will need to create mechanisms to carefully monitor the performance of local authorities.

Another challenge will be devising a new food-safety system that not only addresses the immediate concerns raised by the current scandal, but that serves as a guarantor of Taiwan’s food standards for the long term. The process of undertaking comprehensive and practical reforms should entail consultations with recognized top-quality producers, both domestic and international, to gain the benefit of their expertise. They can advise from practical experience on what food manufacturers should be doing to ensure sound quality assurance throughout the supply chain and production process.

In addition, the Law section of this issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS provides some insight into the legal aspects of countering serious food-safety violations. As the article points out, an obstacle to stiffening the punishment in food safety cases has been the doctrine in Taiwan that the same offense should not be penalized twice – once through administrative fines and again through judicial prosecution. Although the principal of double jeopardy is hardly unique to Taiwan, in the United States it applies only to criminal proceedings. Several bills currently before the Legislative Yuan aim at redefining the doctrine to make heavier penalties available.

In the wake of the latest scandal, the government has expressed its determination to solve the food-safety problem once and for all. Much is riding on its ability to succeed in that effort. An angry and anguished public deserves to have its confidence restored in the reliability of the food it consumes each day. There are broader implications for the economy as well. Taiwan exports some US$1.7 billion worth of food products per year, and already some overseas markets are showing a reluctance to continue purchasing from Taiwan suppliers. Also at risk is the continued vitality of Taiwan’s tourism industry, since the outstanding local cuisine is one of the biggest attractions for foreign visitors.

Establishment of the new cross-agency Food Safety Office under the Executive Yuan is a promising start in getting Taiwan back on track. AmCham and its member companies stand ready to provide support through information on international corporate best practices as reference.