As much as I love Taiwanese food, I have been deliberately avoiding a range of processed foods and beverages. And most Taiwanese have been doing the same, with people staying away from sports drinks and other processed drinks (especially probiotic and yoghurt based drinks), baked goods including pastries, and certain medicines. People are even staying away from Taiwan’s famous bubble milk tea and shaved ice. With temperatures soaring into the sweltering mid thirties, it was all that I could do to resist the temptation of a satisfying mound of crystal shaved ice.
The reason is that Taiwan’s Department of Health discovered the toxic industrial chemical DEHP (di(2-ethyihexyl) phthalate in a sports drink. And not just in small amounts that sometimes occurs when say plastic from packaging leaks into food. The levels of the chemical indicated that it had been deliberately added. And soon after health authorities discovered more DEHP in other food items, and then discovered another substance — DIHP (diisononyl phthalate) — in food. Both chemicals are ‘plasticisers’ that are used to make plasticware flexible.
Authorities traced the food products back to its source and discovered that two companies — Yu Shen and Pin Han Perfumery Co had been using the plasticisers in place of the more expensive palm oil in their clouding agent. Clouding agent is often used in food and beverages to help the product disperse evenly and increase viscosity (i.e. flow resistence). In other words, the clouding agent made liquids look like they were not just water.
Taiwan has been shocked by the platicisers scandal, and developments have been front page fodder for news stories for weeks. Taiwanese are notoriously fussy consumers, who demand high standards for their food. They were appalled by the 2008 melamine milk scandal in China, which also affected many food and beverage products in China, and Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration (part of the Department of Health) has routinely ensured that imports are subjected to higher standards than the accepted international benchmark. So this latest scandal, happening as it has in Taiwan’s own backyard, has shocked, angered and embarrassed many people.
There are a few things that can be said about this food safety scandal:
- There is no denying the scale of the incident. The owners of the main company involved in the scandal, Yu Shen Chemical Co, have admitted to using was using 5 tonnes of DEHP (di(2-ethyihexyl) phthalate a month. And Yu Shen had been using DEHP since at least 1996. So far, authorities have destroyed over 286,000 tonnes of contaminated food throughout Taiwan, with 900 products pulled from nearly 400 shops.
- The list of affected items continues to grow. The clouding agent was sold to a range of downstream manufacturers, who had no idea that the product was toxic. At first, health officials were most concerned about items such as sports drinks, juices, yoghurts and probiotics drinks and powders, capsules and jels, and jams and jellies. But authorities were at one stage concerned about the clouding agent being added as a preservative to baked goods; they later clarified it was only items using contaminated jams. And UK drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline has been caught up in the incident, with one of its products being pulled from shelves because it contained low levels of plasticisers.
- Taiwan’s authorities are struggling to respond to the incident. There is no question of a cover up as there was with the melamine milk incident. Yet it has taken authorities many years to uncover this scandal. And they not been able to reassure the public about the safety of food, especially given the steadily widening range of food affected and the sheer scale of the incident. But in their defence, who would have thought that food manufacturers would deliberaly add toxic chemicals to food ingredients in the name of profit?
- It has affected Taiwan’s food quality reputation. Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning had hoped to promote the globalisation of Taiwan’s cuisine as a key plank in its investment strategy. Key food and beverage producers such as Din Tai Fung, I-Mei and Uni-President were expanding their overseas exports, especially to the China market which paid a premium for supposedly safe Taiwanese food. And Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had launched a ‘gastrodiplomacy’ drive to use Taiwan’s food to promote its unique culture. This food contamination issue will undoubtedly affect the image of Taiwanese branded food.
- But this incident is not as serious as China’s melamine issue. While some consumers have been seeking health check-ups, there have as yet not been any mass casualities. Toxic chemicals are obviously not good for you, but taken in small quantities the liver will process accordingly. But given the chemicals may be carcinagenic, the impact may not show through for some time.
- Sales of blenders have gone through the roof. As the long, hot summer sets in, people are opting to juice their own beverages instead of just strolling down to the local convenience store. So far blender sales have gone up 10 per cent, and sales continue to climb. There are also several features articles showing people how to juice things themselves: a novel concept for many Taiwanese used to a fast-paced convenient lifestyle.
- And the food scandal is potentially wider than just Taiwan. Chinese authorities have found plasticiers in some made-in-China products. Taiwan authorities are now moving to inspect imported food products — especially those from China — for plasticisers.
As for me, I have not been as deterred as I should probably have been from tasting Taiwan’s food and beverages. But it does scare me that this might be only the tip of the ice-berg, not just for Taiwanese products but for processed foods in general. How much do we really know about the food we eat and where it comes from?
What about you? Have you been avoiding Taiwanese processed foods, or processed foods in general?