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Taiwan Targets Food Safety after Rash of Scandals

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - Stinky tofu is seen fried at the Jiaziyuan Restaurant in New Taipei city.

FILE - Stinky tofu is seen fried at the Jiaziyuan Restaurant in New Taipei city.

Taiwan’s government said catching companies selling tainted food following the island’s third major cooking oil scandal in a year is now a top priority. The flaps over altered cooking oil have scared consumers who thought Taiwan safe from food scams.

The premier of Taiwan has ordered government departments to expose what he described as corrupt food manufacturers.

This month, the government shut down oil processing at a plant that it says used animal feed oil from Vietnam and called it fit for humans. Officials have authorized emergency imports of lard to offset the tainted products.

As public anger rises over the latest cooking oil scandal, the scale of which is unusual for Taiwan’s modern society, the premier also vowed to pursue any other manufacturers that are tainting or mislabeling food. Taiwan Cabinet spokesman Sun Lih-chyun said manufacturers involved in the scams cheated to make money.

He said price competition is a possible key reason for the problem, and added that big companies lacked the sense of responsibility to purchase quality raw materials from upstream suppliers and knew about problematic oil ingredients early on. He said this is a matter the public cannot accept.

Earlier this month, Taiwan prosecutors began probing greater China food giant Ting Hsin International Group for sales of cooking oil believed to contain oil for animal feed. Ting Hsin executive Wei Yin-chun apologized to Taiwan Saturday and vowed to take responsibility. Taiwan's government estimates a subsidiary of Ting Hsin and a supplier control 95 percent of Taiwan’s lard market. The company is also China’s biggest instant noodle maker.

Prosecutors this month began probing another food processor that may have used industrial oils.

Lien Yu-ping, a 37-year-old housewife, has stopped shopping at a bakery in her hometown Hsinchu because it is supplied by that processor.

Seeking a sense of safety, she said she makes bread at home now, where she can control the source of ingredients, and has turned to olive oil. She fears the government is handling the oil scandals in a way that shows too much sensitivity to business interests and economic development, and is hard to trust.

An earlier food scandal in Taiwan, uncovered in September, involved the widespread use of cooking oil made from kitchen waste and other low-quality ingredients. That discovery, prompted by the complaint of a farmer who collected his own evidence, led to recalls affecting 1,200 restaurants and food processors and causing losses of $165 million.

In October last year a Taiwanese supplier to Ting Hsin subsidiary Wei Chuan Food Corporation was found adding a food coloring agent to make cheaper oils look like more expensive olive and grape seed oils.

The tainted oil supply chain may extend to Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Andrew Tsai, economist for KGI Securities in Taipei, said consumer confidence will weaken if the scandals go on, causing losses to the food service sector.

Government officials say the tainted oils pose no immediate health risks, but a restaurant association with 100,000 odd members began to boycott Ting Hsin this week. Some consumers who normally save time or see friends by eating out have turned to cooking at home with vegetable oil.

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