by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 挪威 企鵝/WikiCommons/CC
A RECENT SCANDAL regarding a melon tea store in Kaohsiung broke out after photos circulated online of dead mice and bee corpses in pots in the factory area. The tea store in question is over sixty years old, is located in the Cianjin District of Kaohsiung, and also operates as a factory, selling ingredients for melon tea to a number of beverage stores in the area.
After these images circulated, the Kaohsiung Department of Health conducted an inspection, finding that kitchenware and ingredients were not covered, and that there were spider webs and dust in the premises. The melon tea store has been ordered to improve conditions before February 14th or face fines ranging from 60,000 NT to 200 million NT.
The melon tea factory invited reporters to the premises and claimed the photos were not recent, emphasizing that the restaurant had passed safety inspections.
For its part, the melon tea store claims that the photos were uploaded online by a disgruntled former employee. According to management, the employee in question received half a month’s pay in bonus pay rather than a full month’s pay, unlike other employees, due to discipline issues. As such, this employee subsequently quit and leaked the images to the media. The store has suggested that it may take legal action over the matter.
The situation is not uncommon in Taiwan. Namely, enforcement of food safety standards are lax in many restaurants, or food companies. Taiwan also saw successive food adulteration scandals in 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. This included the use of plasticizer to replace palm oil as a clouding agent by Taiwanese companies Yu Shen Chemical Company and Pin Han Perfumery Company in 2011, and the discovery of the sale adulterated cooking oil by nine Taiwanese companies in 2013, the largest of which were the Ting Hsin International Group and the Wei Chuan Food Corporation. This was followed by another adulterated cooking oil scandal in 2014, as well as the discovery of the use of methyl yellow in tofu in 2014.
Much outrage in particular focused on food adulteration scandals by the Ting Hsin group. 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. Ting Hsin group chairman Wei Ying-chun was also implicated in the 2013 food oil scandal.
The Wei brothers who own the Ting Hsin group 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. Yet Wei Ying-chun was found not guilty of violating the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation in 2015, provoking much outrage amongst the Taiwanese public and from civil society groups.
As this took place under the KMT Ma administration, some perceived this as indicating collusion between the state and powerful and wealthy companies so that corporate executives could get off scot-free. Others pointed to the incompetence of the prosecution during the trial.
Adulteration scandals are not limited to the food industry. An example in another industry can be seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, after Taiwanese companies part of the “National Team” for boosting domestic medical mask corruption were found to be passing off masks that were made in China as domestically produced. Companies that were found guilty of this included Carry Mask and Team Power Healthcare, which are based in New Taipei, and Haw Ping Company, which is located in Yuanlin.
As a similar phenomenon, one has also seen cost-cutting in the construction industry at the cost of lives, most notable with the 2016 collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong housing complex after an earthquake, killing 52 individuals. It was later found that the Weiguan Construction Company that built the complex had used large cans of cooking oil in the construction of the building in order to reduce costs.
But whether with the construction industry, with regards to broader issues of building safety such as fire safety, or the food industry, a culture of lax inspections contributes to such issues. And, as should go without saying, it proves common for company management to try and retaliate against whistleblowers or workers that otherwise try to stand for their rights. In this sense, one does not expect such issues to be resolved anytime soon.