by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Chen Chien-jen/Facebook

A POLITICAL CONTROVERSY about a banned meat additive has become an object of partisan contestation between the KMT and DPP, with the KMT boycotting a report to the legislature by Premier Chen Chien-jen yesterday. The controversy led to back-and-forth before the Lunar New Year between the health authorities of the Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

This took place after the meat additive cimbuterol was found in pork from the Taiwan Sugar Corporation. Less than 0.002 parts per million of cimbuterol was found, but the Lu administration sought to attack the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for inaction on a critical safety of food safety.

The FDA later responded by pointing out that only one company in Taiwan is licensed to import cimbuterol and it imported less than half of a gram of cimbuterol last year. Namely, cimbuterol is used in laboratory tests and not meat products, as it is more expensive than gold, costing more than 1 million NT per gram.

As such, pig farmers would be unlikely to use it in meat products, given the price. Food adulteration scandals are common in Taiwan, but this occurs when food producers adulterate products or use banned chemicals to cut costs. It would be highly unlikely that cimbuterol was used as part of some attempt at food adulteration.

While Minister of Health and Welfare Victor Wang has offered to apologize for the incident, Lu has stated that this is not necessary, and now emphasizes that the incident was an isolated case. In particular, Lu was likely hoping to attack the Tsai administration over inaction over cimbuterol being detected in pork products.

This would be one of a number of times in recent memory that issues regarding food safety have become contested between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps. Namely, food adulteration scandals have caused significant political firestorms in the past, as observed in food adulteration controversies after nine Taiwanese companies–the largest of which were Ting Hsin International Group and the Wei Chuan Food Corporation–were found to have sold adulterated cooking oil in 2013. Indeed, the 2010s saw a number of food adulteration scandals involving products ranging from cooking oil to chemicals such as methyl yellow and palm oil as a clouding agent.

Lu Shiow-yen. Photo credit: Lu Shiow-yen/Facebook

As such, the sensitivity of the public around food adulteration scandals makes such accusations easy fodder for political attacks. While these food adulteration scandals mostly occurred under the Ma administration, the KMT has attempted to attack the Tsai administration over actions such as lifting the ban on ractopamine-treated pork from the US and food imports from the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima. Ractopamine is a growth hormone banned in over 180 countries which is used in the US and there have been long been concerns over the effects of radiation on food in Fukushima as a result of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which led to the catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Ironically, however, the KMT had also proposed lifting the ban on US pork in the past before swapping positions with the DPP between when it was in and out of power. Likewise, the KMT is the pro-nuclear party in Taiwanese politics.

Likewise, the Lu administration seeking to attack the central health authorities of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) and the FDA reflects a pattern seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, when pan-Blue mayoral administrations frequently sought to attack the central government and MOHW of inaction. Oftentimes, the central government would be accused of lax measures against the coronavirus or failing to distribute resources to local areas controlled by pan-Blue administrations.

Lu may have been hoping to replicate such attacks. Still, the attempted attack may have been clumsy, in hitting at the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, historically a state-owned enterprise. Workers in state-owned enterprises, who are close to public servants, historically slant pan-Blue as a result of the KMT’s long-standing influence among public sector workers going back to when it was the sole party that ruled over the government during the authoritarian period. Yet Lu sought to put them in the line of fire nonetheless, potentially alienating such support.

Indeed, the KMT as a whole realizes to what extent criticisms of the DPP over issues of food safety can gain traction, This is probably why the party decided to stake as much political capital as boycotting Chen Chien-jen’s report to the legislature yesterday on the issue, even if the case may rest on flimsy evidence. Food safety issues are, after all, historically of great importance to the Taiwanese public.

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