[VIEWPOINT]A threat to people’s healthThere was a shocking report that malachite green, an agent banned because of the possibility of causing cancer, was detected in eels and fish products imported from China and other countries during the period from July 27 to early August. Although this substance was not detected in domestic eels at all, the report unfortunately caused a tremendous loss to domestic eel-related industry.
Chinese food products have long occupied our table. The problem lies in the fact that the threat to our people’s health from the low quality, unhygienic and unwholesome China-based food is worsening every day. In the beer made in China, formaldehyde, a harmful chemical substance, was detected. From the chicken at KFC in China came Sudan 1, a red dye that is not approved as a food additive for making sauce. People’s uneasiness increased after a bleaching agent was detected in steamed rice and pesticide in ginseng, also imported from China. In addition, Chinese-made kimchi was turned into a Korean product and substances harmful to liver function were detected in health supplements imported from China. Such cases are so many that they are increasingly hard to list.
Our country has fundamentally weak foundations for food production, so we depend heavily on imported food. Our people have met more than half of their daily caloric requirement with imported food for a long time. We turn to imported food for over 80 percent of the total raw materials of processed food. Despite this situation, imports of low-quality food have not been eliminated, and Chinese products are at the forefront.
The primary reason for the inundation of the unwholesome food from China is that China’s production and distribution facilities do not meet proper standards. The level of Chinese people in charge of food production and distribution is low, and a systematic hygiene management system has not been established yet.
But we cannot just blame China alone. There is also a lot to blame in Korea, including our loose quarantine system, indiscriminate imports by greedy importers and an inspection dead zone created by vendors, whose imports account for about 10 percent of total imports. To solve these problems, first of all, inter-departmental cooperation should be strengthened in the government regarding the inspection and management of imported food. This is even more so because the inspection duties involving imported food are dispersed among the Korea Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
Second, it is important to drastically increase the intensity of inspection of imported food. This is to say that the inspection personnel and equipment of the concerned authorities, including the Korea Food and Drug Administration, should be increased, and in addition to formal documentary inspection, more frequent inspections of more specimens should be carried out. Particularly, in the case of countries with poor hygiene, including China and Vietnam, our government needs to make efforts to intensively manage imports from them.
Third, our country needs to reinforce its diplomatic ability and status regarding food exports and imports. Our country ranks 10th among the countries whose food is detained before clearance at the customs office when it is exported to the United States. Also, when we export foodstuffs to other advanced countries, including European countries and Japan, we are asked to observe all kinds of preconditions to ensure the safety of the food. This leads to increases in the cost of our exported food and has an adverse impact on the price competitiveness of our products.
But our country has almost no requirements for imported food. As to the food on which people’s lives and health depend, we should not examine only the economic effects of trade or curry the favor of a strong country. Regarding the incident of eels imported from China, the measures taken by the Chinese government were not satisfactory. All it did was notify South Korea that it would autonomously suspend exporting eel products, reinforce inspection and strengthen the management of the eel export businesses. We also concluded the matter by banning the clearance of such products through customs and abandoning the products.
Up to now, we have turned away from the fact that China and other countries that are vulnerable to food safety issues are greatly responsible for the poor quality of food on our table. The government held responsible only domestic food manufacturers, criticizing domestic businesses through the reinforcement of the Food Safety Act, the legislation of the Food Safety Basic Law and the strengthening of regulations on domestic food businesses. From now on, the government should speed up its efforts to manage the safety of food imported from China, the true culprit that threatens the safety of our food, rather than one-sidedly blaming domestic food companies.
* The writer is a professor of food science and technology at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ha Sang-do