[Editorial] Helter-skelter response

By Korea Herald

Tainted eggs in eco-friendly farms arouse suspicion of certification overissue, cozy public-private ties

  • Published : Aug 20, 2017 - 18:09
  • Updated : Aug 20, 2017 - 18:10
Last week’s tests on eggs at all 1,239 chicken farms across the country found eggs in 49 farms contaminated with insecticides banned for the human food chain.

The government said eggs from unaffected farms are safe. But consumers do not seem to believe everything as told due to lingering doubts about tests.

The government response to the contaminated egg scare has been chaotic.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs disclosed egg contamination to the press about 10 hours after knowing about it Monday. It set up a task force in the afternoon the following day. All chicken farms were banned from releasing their eggs from midnight that day, but withdrawal of eggs from markets was not ordered. Retailers, not the government, pulled eggs off the shelves voluntarily.

The government’s response a day before announcing the results of tests Friday was in a muddle.

The ministry said 29 farms were implicated in the scandal, and then changed the number to 31 after reporters found statistical errors during news briefings. Later, several farms were found to have been falsely connected to the egg contamination. One farm was found missing from the list of affected farms.

Some tests turned out to have been conducted on eggs chosen by farmers, not randomly by officials. In some contaminated eggs, ID codes that should have been stamped were missing or false. Some provincial governments failed to test for all of the required substances because they were not stocked with the full 27 reagents.

Minister of Food and Drug Safety Ryu Young-jin showed his ignorance of the egg contamination woes and his failure to grasp related tasks.

Five days before the scandal broke out, he said, “Korean eggs are safe.”

He was rebuked by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon during a policy check meeting Thursday for giving inadequate answers to questions about the contaminated egg scandal.

The most shocking of all was that 31 of 49 affected farms had been certified as environmentally friendly.

In certified eco-friendly farms, use of insecticides is strictly restricted.

Consumers who bought expensive eco-friendly eggs for the sake of their health could not help but feel fooled. Certified eco-friendly farms have received subsidies and sold eggs at higher prices than eggs from other farms.

Certifications are issued by private quality assurance institutions under the supervision of the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service.

Through the egg scandal, it has become known that chief executives at five of 64 certification institutions and 85 of 649 certification assessors at the institutions are retirees of the service.

This arouses suspicions of cozy relations between the private certifiers and their supervising agency. It is reminiscent of the corrupt relationship between private cruise operators and their supervising agencies, which was revealed through the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.

The authorities say they are tightly supervising certification, but lax certification looks unavoidable under the current system in which farmers pay fees to the institutions for certification.

The more certifications they issue, the more profits they make. Farmers are tempted to apply to those institutions which offer less difficult screenings and lower fees. The current certification system must be improved quickly.

Food-related agencies, including the service, deserve reprimand for the tainted egg scare. Their wrongs should be rooted out. Any back-scratching alliance between businesses and the government should be broken. It cannot be tolerated in the name of agricultural expertise.

It would not be an exaggeration to say the scandal was caused by incompetence and irresponsibility on the part of authorities.

The government must take measures soon, though belated, including the improvement of eco-friendly farm certification, the introduction of chicken and egg tracking system and the improvement of the poultry breeding environment.

Authorities should double efforts to prevent the contaminated egg fears from eroding trust in the government.