Taipei, May 29 (CNA) The government will push for an amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation, to allow increased penalties for violators, after several local food products were found to contain starch tainted with maleic acid, Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo said Wednesday.
Mao made the announcement at an international news conference on the issue after convening a food safety meeting to discuss the tainted starch scare.
Mao said several resolutions were reached at the meeting, including continuing the promotion of the amendment to the Act Governing Food Sanitation, more stringent penalties for violators and stepping up the pace of the establishment of a warning system for food safety risk monitoring.
The resolutions also call for strengthened food safety checks by government agencies at various levels, swifter coordination and inter-agency cooperation, prevention of chemicals entering the food production system, and improvement of the food safety reporting system.
"The government will not let up on its efforts to ensure a safe eating environment for the people," Mao said.
Department of Health (DOH) Minister Chiu Wen-ta also said the top priority is law revision, adding that "the penalties are too lenient and do not have a deterrent effect."
He said his department has found 21 companies allegedly involved in the latest food scandal and hopes to increase the rewards for reporting food safety violations.
Under the current regulations, companies can be fined up to NT$6 million (US$199,779), with repetitive fines possible, for putting excessive levels of illegal additives into their food products, said Kang Jaw-jou, director-general of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the DOH.
If the additives are proved to be harmful, the violators could be sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison, Kang said.
The industrial starch scandal came to light on May 14 and since then several starch suppliers around the country that provide ingredients used in popular drinks and hot pot dishes have been listed as targets in a massive food safety check.
The industrial starch was found to have been mixed with sweet potato flour and other types of flour used to make rice noodles and tapioca balls that are used in bubble tea drinks.
To prevent other countries from imposing restrictions on Taiwanese food products, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has asked the DOH to provide a list of substandard products, which the ministry will provide to authorities in other countries as reference, Vice Economics Minister Cho Shih-chao said.
As to whether the government considers maleic anhydride a "toxic" substance, Chiu said it is an "illegal additive."
Kang said that according to European Union standards, there should be no "immediate danger" to the human body if the intake is within 0.5 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight.
Maleic anhydride is used in the production of food packing materials. It transforms into maleic acid when mixed with water, and is excluded from Taiwan's list of approved industrial starches for food products.
President Ma Ying-jeou said earlier in the day that the government will crack down more heavily on food products containing the banned industrial starch, which is used as an additive to increase the chewiness of certain foods.
(By Hsieh Chia-chen, Y.L. Kao and Christie Chen)