TFDA in the Cross Hairs

 In its short five years of existence, Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) has had to confront a number of hot button issues at the center of national controversies, including plasticizers in cold drinks and food items, starches contaminated with illegal chemical additives, and waste and feed oil in the edible oils supply.

By Timothy Ferry

The TFDA and scandal have become so intertwined in the public mind that its principal organizer and original director-general, Kang Jaw-jou, who served until mid-2013, says many people have been led to think that establishment of the nation’s food and drug watchdog somehow actually worsened the food-safety situation in Taiwan.

In its handling of the various food scandals, the TFDA has been criticized for a slow pace of investigations and has even been suspected by the media of deliberately stalling probes at the behest of the administration to protect political allies. Morale in the agency has plunged. “Many people are quitting because they’re putting in such long hours but still getting all this criticism,” notes Kang.

Many people have been led to think that establishment of the nation’s food and drug watchdog somehow actually worsened the food-safety situation in Taiwan.

Sheen Lee-yan, professor in the Institute of Food Science at National Taiwan University, observes that as investigations uncover more scandals within the food supply, it gives the public the misconception that the situation is worsening, instead of improving. “This is the challenge of successful public policies,” he observes.

The 2011 plasticizer scandal was an early trial by fire for the nascent agency. In March 2011, TFDA lab analysts discovered the plasticizer DEHP, generally used in making PVC, in several popular cold drinks. DEHP has been linked to obesity and hormonal disruptions in animals and is potentially carcinogenic.

In such a situation, Kang says, standard operating procedure is to refer the case back to the local health department for action. But due to the seriousness of the case, Kang recalls that the TFDA instead conferred with prosecutors on how to proceed. He notes that in contrast to health inspectors, who tend to trust the honesty of local manufacturers, the prosecutors told him: “We don’t trust anyone. We need to see the evidence.”

After ensuring that suspected products were removed from store shelves, the authorities took a closer look at all the materials used in producing cold drinks and discovered that the Yu Shen Chemical Co. and Pintian Perfumery Co. had been selling DEHP-laced clouding agents to food manufacturers for decades without anybody noticing. Clouding agents are supposed to be made from natural products such as palm oil, which is more expensive and has a shorter shelf life. Eventually DEHP was discovered in an array of food items besides cold drinks, and over 250 products were removed from store shelves, impacting hundreds of producers and tens of thousands of vendors.

The wave of products impacted by the scandal sparked an outcry. The TFDA came under fire from some critics for negligence in allowing plasticizers to be used in food and beverage production, although other commentators praised it for having successfully removed the contaminant from Taiwan’s food supply.

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