by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: UDN

OVER THE PAST few years, food scandals have become all too common an event in Taiwan. The nation has seen major food scandals in 2011, 2013, and 2014. In all three cases, cooking oil was found to be adulterated with chemical products by companies seeking to cut costs. They were all followed by a period of public scare, in which consumers avoided contaminated food products—but then eventually returned to using these products in the long run.

Perhaps it is in part the short memory of the Taiwanese public which would allow for repetitive food scandals. On the other hand, however, it is that the Taiwanese food industry is dominated by large corporations who often evade oversight. The ubiquity of their products means that there is almost avoiding contaminated products. As such, it may not be entirely surprising that for all of the past food scandals, in time the Taiwanese public had no option but to return to eating products which had been implicated as contaminated.

The recent scandal of Ting Hsin group chairman Wei Ying-chun being found not guilty of violating the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation has provoked much outrage amongst the Taiwanese public and from civil society groups. The Ting Hsin group was implicated in the 2014 food scandal for adulterating cooking oil with waste oil and, in the case of tofu products, with industrial dyes. Wei had been implicated in the 2013 food oil scandal also and is one of the four Wei brothers that owns the Ting Hsin group. The Wei brothers are among the wealthiest individuals in Taiwan, possess longstanding ties to the KMT, and it was previously expected that they might flee with their assets to China in the case of a guilty verdict after an incident in 2014 which seemed to indicate early moves in preparation of flight.

That Wei would get off free has popularly been seen as indicating the collusion of the state with large corporations as the Ting Hsin group at the expense of the people, a gesture towards systematic injustice. Although many have suggested this is a result of incompetent prosecution or the laws on the books being insufficient. the question of the apparent incompetence of the prosecution has been a matter of controversy, with individuals pointing to this as an example of the failures of the Taiwanese justice system. The case can still be appealed.]Ting Hsin products. Photo credit:

But apart from questions of the outcome of the present ruling, taken as a whole, the Ting Hsin debacle is seen as the latest of the many examples of corporate executives with established guilt regarding seeming to get away with few consequences in Taiwan. In the case of Wei, then, he would be an individual who had been implicated in successive food scandals and gone relatively scot free, pointing to systematic failures of justice as well as safety regulation in Taiwan.

It is, of course, stunning that three major food scandals could occur within the last five years repeatedly. It is the collusion of the primarily KMT politicians with large, powerful corporations that allows for the repeated scandals such as the food scandals we have see in recent years. During past cases of food scandals, corporations were fined and some corporate executives arrested, but this has not prevented a repetition of food scandals. In all cases, the Ma Ying-Jeou administration has vowed stricter enforcement of food safety measures in the future, but this has not happened.

Indeed, what emerged in the 2014 food scandal was that Ting Hsin group had been adulterating their food products for decades. But apparently past food scandals had not prompted them to clean up their act in any way until they were caught. Will it only be that in the future, allegations of adulterated or contaminated food products by more large food conglomerates will emerge?

We find the collusion of KMT politicians with large, powerful corporations in a number of sectors. This includes the construction industry, the food industry, and the media. Scandals are passed off, the responsible parties escape guilt, and it is hoped that with the passage of enough time, the public will forget. Whether or not this was the case in the current ruling or more a product of prosecutorial incompetence, quite often this works.

Actually, this is a phenomenon of close ties between politicians and corporations is pervasive in Taiwanese society. So it is, then, that we find politicians covering for lax safety standards by construction companies, only for disasters to happen with breakdowns in infrastructure. In the construction industry, this goes as far as politicians partnering with construction companies with gangster ties for development projects, covering for the gangsters that attempt to drive residents off of a valuable piece of real estate in order to allow for redevelopment. It is also such that KMT politicians largely hoping to sell off Taiwan to China have allowed for the purchase of Taiwanese media outlets by Chinese companies, leading to a situation in which Taiwanese media becomes dominated by Chinese interests, and pro-China viewpoints.

Indeed, if contaminated Chinese food products have raised concerns about food safety in many recent years, a recent trade deal to be signed with China whose negotiations ultimately stalled raised fears of unsafe Chinese food products coming into Taiwan. But Taiwan’s international image abroad, too, has also certainly been affected by recent food scandals, each of the past years’ food scandals having led to Taiwanese food products being pulled from shelves across Asia. Where does the problem lie, then?

Namely, it would seem that Taiwan has a crony capitalism problem. Crony capitalism is defined as a form of capitalism in which close relations between businessmen and government officials is what allows for economic success. Largely, we see crony capitalism as a pervasive phenomenon in many of the East Asian capitalist countries. This would be the reason as to why government actors seem to be so willing to cover for businessmen and business interests, fail to pass substantial reform and create an environment which allows the wrongdoings of corporations to go unpunished.

PhotoCreditForbesWei Ying-chun. Photo credit: Forbes

Nevertheless, the problem is more deeply rooted. In past food scandals, what led to unsafe food products being sold on the market was corporations’ willingness to pass off products unfit for human consumption as safe, in some cases chemicals being deliberately added to food products in order to accomplish this effect. This was in most cases a cost-cutting measure in order to drive down production costs while keeping the prices of food products the same.

The problem, then, would go back to capitalists’ willingness to put unsafe food products on the market, in spite of effects on consumers’ health, in order to drive down production costs while maximizing profit. So perhaps the ultimate root of the problem is in the logic of capitalism itself, when it is that capitalists come to place their profit motive ahead of anything else. However, if individuals have called for reform or greater government regulation, it is that the persistence of crony capitalism is what has led to the failure of reform to take place in the past cases of food scandals.

The situation in Taiwan reminds vaguely of the conditions that existed in the American food industry in the early 20th century, in which powerful companies operating with little oversight systematically violated health regulations—as described, for example, in The Jungle, written by socialist and muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair to expose the poor working condition of immigrants. It was that the depiction of food processing in the The Jungle provoked widespread public outcry that ultimately led to reform, including scenes of factory rats being packaged into meat products which were later found to be factual. And though we may not see images as lurid as to be found in The Jungle from the present food scandal, the deliberate addition of industrial-grade chemicals to food products by Ting Hsin and other companies should inspire no small amount of dread and outrage.

But seeing as we have already seen many instances of food scandals and public outcry in Taiwan in several years, apparently without lasting effect, what is it that will lead to genuine reform? This, too, may be an issue which goes back to the KMT and the capitalist business interests deeply tied with KMT power in Taiwan.

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