Free trade means we need better inspections




By Wu Pei-Ing

professor of the department of Agriculture Economics,

National Taiwan University

 published in Taipei Times, October 3,2008,Page 8

Translated by Ted Yang



   Since the news broke that melamine-tainted products from China have compromised food safety in Taiwan, many people worry each time they sit down to breakfast, lunch or dinner that they will ingest melamine. Even a small amount of the chemical from a liquid creamer or a sip of milk tea can eventually lead to kidney stones.

   However, a more worrying question is how many of the products on store shelves meet safety standards. The public was shocked when the Department of Health changed the standard for melamine from zero parts per million (ppm) to 2.5ppm. The change was made because detection instruments cannot detect levels down to zero ppm and because the department is only responsible for defining tolerable intake of “food additives.”

   Apart from the change in inspection standards, which upset the public, the government failed to take any precautions. Our government thinks that the free trade promoted by our membership in the WTO will create a strong economy, with products from all over the world freely entering Taiwan, including products from China. This mindset makes for a sloppy and negligent government.

   Within Taiwan, there is a food tracing system for all local agricultural products, providing information about production and processing. If consumers find a problem with a product, they can trace it to find the source. How can the government allow imports of food from other countries without verifying their source of origin and keeping tabs on where they end up in Taiwan? If our only checkpoint for imports cannot be managed properly, we can hardly expect the government to deal with problems discovered after they have been distributed.

   In order to protect public health and ensure fair trade, the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization established the Codex Alimentarius Commission in 1962. In particular, to ensure health and food safety, the commission has developed a series of labeling regulations for food products since 1993 to declare ingredients and processing information. In addition, each country sets its own regulations.

   Because these rules involve fair trade, the WTO also created the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, which is aimed at providing guidelines for food products.

   Taiwan was pleased to join the WTO, an organization that believes that free trade can improve the economy. However, some members of the WTO can be hypocritical, seeking channels to block imports from other countries with tariffs. As a result, the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) was established to ensure that regulations and standards do not create unnecessary obstacles to imports from other countries.

   Advanced countries like members of the EU often require that controversial imported products such as genetically modified food that may have negative effects on health, have clear labels. The requirement is strict enough to constitute an alternative to tariffs and is thus a TBT. All disputes are handled by arbitration and inspections carried out by a TBT committee, as are products suspected or proven to have detrimental effects on humans.

   While international organizations implemented regulations to protect consumer health long ago, Taiwanese companies had to pull contaminated foods from shelves last month. The government’s wishy-washy policies have thus increased costs, left consumers at a loss and endangered public health. Although Taiwan is a member of the WTO, we are not yet acting in accordance with international inspection regulations.