[Viewpoint]Crack down on food safety standardsNews about sub-standard food seems to be coming out regularly nowadays. Even before we’ve gotten over the shock of something believed to be part of a rat’s head in a pack of a popular shrimp-flavored snack, it was reported that a fragment of a blade was found in a can of tuna fish.
It is frustrating to be wondering whether there is any foodstuff around that we can consume without worry. It makes us sad to realize that the standard of food safety in Korea is no better than in less developed countries, although we are on the threshold of joining the ranks of advanced countries.
Health specialists place the blame on a weak legal system, low ethical standards in business and poor awareness of food safety among consumers, among other reasons, for the frequent outbreak of controversy over substandard food. I think the basic responsibility for keeping food safe, however, rests on concerned businesses. I am of the opinion that we cannot discuss food safety without pointing out the low ethical standards of Korean companies that are only concerned about making use of consumers, instead of serving them.
This is apparent in how the companies that sold the shrimp crackers with a rat’s head, Nongshim, and the tuna with the blade fragment, Dongwon F&B, reacted to the exposures. Instead of looking into what might have caused the problem and working to prevent reoccurrence, they seem to have put all their effort into their cover-ups, offering money and gifts to the people who discovered the problems. These two companies are not the only ones. Nothing much has changed in the way food companies today handle problems of substandard food compared with the ways of the past.
When President Lee Myung-bak, responding to the recent row over substandard food, issued his criticism, “Food-related crime is really bad,” food safety authorities rushed to announce a set of comprehensive countermeasures. These comprise three points: preventing the sale of tainted food, establishment of a system for swift action against the sale of such food and stronger punishments for violators. It is a pity that the measures did not include improvement of the business ethics of food companies.
In fact, it is not possible to restore business ethics in food companies only through laws and systems. First of all, the companies themselves should make the effort. If they fail to do so voluntarily, the next best solution is to show them how severe the law can be. Awareness of the cost incurred from violating laws and principles, and ignoring consumers is much bigger than what they can gain from merely appeasing consumers and concealing substandard products, should be instilled in these companies.
In this respect, we need to learn lessons from advanced countries that employ a punitive compensation system. In the United States, companies are responsible for the safety standards of their own food products, in accordance with laws that set down responsibility for manufactured goods. When a problem arises either through a lawsuit or findings at periodic spot inspections by concerned authorities, an enormous amount of compensation for damages is forced on them, making recovery almost impossible. If a harmful substance is found in a hamburger, an astronomical amount of compensation must be paid by the company. Damages are calculated by multiplying the price of hamburgers with the numbers sold at each hamburger shop nationwide. If you get caught once, that’s it. Naturally, companies pay full attention to keeping food safe at all times, so they will not get caught in a lawsuit. This costs less.
The level of punishment against the sale of harmful food is comparatively low in Korea, and even if a company is caught in a lawsuit, it is only liable for the damages claimed. Therefore, there is a tendency for some food companies to use lawsuits to their advantage.
One punishment that is even more effective than law enforcement is consumer power. In advanced countries, there is a common understanding among consumers that bad companies should be driven out of the market. The Japanese dairy firm Yukijirushi was a large company with 80 percent market share, but it was driven out of the market by consumers because of its frequent violations of food safety standards, including sales of contaminated food. This is the power of the market that Korean consumers, who are too forgiving about sub-standard foods, should learn.
Food safety standards represent the standards of a country. Even if we imitate what advanced countries do, while neglecting basic standards of living, we will be nothing but copycats. One word from the president seems to be more effective than the law these days. The utility poles that blocked the flow of traffic for decades got pulled out in an instant, and a new index of consumer prices that did not exist before was established in the blink of an eye. This is not desirable at all in a democratic society.
However, I hope the words of the president on food safety will take effect, and a proper system that can guarantee the safety of food on our dining tables is provided.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lim Bong-soo