[OUTLOOK]Foul food, rotten system

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[OUTLOOK]Foul food, rotten system

As national income rises, Koreans are showing more interest in their health, and consumers’ demand for food safety is getting stronger every day. Yet, in these so-called “well-being” days, the news of “garbage dumpling” has shocked the nation. People were horrified and enraged to hear that several food companies had used rotten ingredients in their frozen dumplings. A housewife who said she had fed her baby dumplings right after she weaned him fumed at the fact that the companies used spoiled pickled radishes that should have been thrown away. Many insist that those responsible for making such hazardous food should be given the heaviest punishment possible.
“Garbage dumplings” are but the newest of some horrible food safety violations reported recently. In another report, a company was found selling pepper seeds, an ingredient frequently used in Korean dishes, dyed with red shoe polish. How could these companies get away with selling such blatantly hazardous products? It is because ― and the seriousness of the problems lies in the fact that ― our society let them. Since 1994, as part of deregulation and transfer of power to local governments, regulatory authority has been decentralized. In the process, there has not been sufficient attention paid to the downsides of that transfer. Authority was given to local governments, but they lacked the technology and the equipment, not to mention the expertise, to sort out hazardous food products. Among the 2,041 food safety public officers hired by local governments, 80 percent are not experts in the field. Local government heads, who hold almost total authority on food safety, are issuing permits indiscriminately, to cater to the need to feed their economy, to repay personal favors and to win votes. Punishment for violations is rare and ineffective. More than 1.7 million violations were reported in 1995. After local governments took over in 2001, the number fell to about 750,000. We have good reason to doubt that proper supervision is in effect.
The bigger problem is that seven government agencies have a food-safety regulatory role. Such dispersing of duties leads to disunity, a tendency to pass the buck and a failure to respond promptly. When one company produces, for example, both processed food and dairy food products, it needs permits from two different agencies. This would hinder the competitiveness of our food industry and cause inefficiencies in supervising and regulating. With such a system, it is difficult to respond effectively to new threats or to consumers’ demands for food safety.
It is a global trend these days for governments to integrate national administrative organs for food safety. Britain’s Food Standards Agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the EU’s European Food Safety Authority were all recently established. Japan, too, set up a Food Safety Commission under the prime minister’s office in 2003 and integrated the food safety administration that had had previously been divided between the agricultural and fisheries ministry and the health ministry. Our country, too, needs to integrate our food safety administration.
But restructuring organizations and increasing the number of supervisors alone will not stop all production of hazardous food products. The biggest shame in this “garbage dumplings” case is that none of the factory workers had ever reported this unbelievably foul act. It might be a good idea to offer rewards in the future for those who report such violations. And all the food companies that are responsible for selling such hazardous products should be made clearly known to the public. A food company that has sold its soul has no business selling food to the people. Such a company should be driven out of the market by consumers.

* The writer is the chairman of the Food Safety Forum and a professor of veterinary science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Yong-sun
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