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[Voice] Is the food safety system working?

With periodic food scares causing public concern ...Is the food safety system working?

Shoppers look at groceries at a supermarket in Seoul. (Yonhap News)
Shoppers look at groceries at a supermarket in Seoul. (Yonhap News)
It is said that you are what you eat. For some, this means sticking to a diet of only the healthiest produce. But even the biggest junk-food junkie expects what he puts in his mouth to be safe. Food scares of varying credibility in Korea in recent years, however, have often caused the public to question this basic assumption. Most recently, a number of instant noodle products manufactured by local company Nongshim were found to contain the carcinogen benzopyrene.

With Korea importing about 70 percent of its food products, however, it is no surprise that much of the public anxiety surrounding contaminated food has been over produce sourced from abroad.

Fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as BSE, arising from the President Lee Myung-bak administration’s reversal of a ban on imports of U.S. beef in 2008 fueled demonstrations of tens of thousands of concerned citizens. It later emerged that the episode of MBC’s “PD Notebook” that had played a large part in heightening the public’s anxiety contained a number of factual errors. Yet, concerns over American beef persist: In April, the discovery of a dairy cow with BSE in California led the nation’s second- and third-biggest supermarkets, Homeplus and Lotte Mart, to take U.S. beef off their shelves despite assurances by the U.S. authorities that the infected cow had never been a risk to the food chain. Meanwhile, Korea last week suspended imports of Brazilian beef, after a case of BSE was detected in the country.

“Because food safety is not a local issue ― it is a global issue right now ― (when) something happens in another country or Korea, it comes soon to another country or Korea,” said Oh Sang-suk, a professor at the department of Food and Nutrition at Ewha Womans University and former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We have to get the information in the food safety area from globally. Scientifically, we are interested in what is going to be a better detection method or what is going to be the important thing to protect the public.”

Responsibility for food safety falls upon a number of government agencies. The Korea Food and Drug Administration sets policy, monitors production and enforces standards for all food aside from meat and poultry, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The Ministry for Health and Welfare draws up general laws regarding food safety.

Gaps in system

Choi Ji-hyeon, research director at the Center for Food & Marketing Research of the Korea Rural Economic Institute, said that the fragmented nature of the country’s regulatory framework leaves it vulnerable to gaps.

“Since there are different departments in charge by foods and by handling procedure, a certain dead zone is inevitable which often leads to inefficiency,” said Choi. “Systematic cooperation between departments, even in the prevailing system, would have led to no problem. But such cooperation has not been seen in Korea up until now.”

Oh said that it should be examined whether or not a more centralized system would be better suited to Korea’s needs.

“In the U.S., like in Korea, the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture share work in that area. In Korea it is almost the same as in the U.S. When we look at the British system it is very centralized and until now (has been) very efficient,” said Oh. “We have to look at what is good for the Korean situation. I cannot say which is better now.”

The Korea Herald contacted the KFDA for comment but was told it was unable to respond to queries before the new year. However, a representative from the National Food Security Information Service, which is affiliated with the KFDA, provided comment on condition of anonymity.

“We provide food safety information to stakeholders including the industry, the government and consumers, and actually, we have got a special relationship with consumer advocacy groups,” said the official.

International cooperation

He added that the organization gathers information on contamination, regulation trends and best practice from worldwide, working in seven languages, and shares it with the KFDA with a view to boosting the effectiveness of the regulatory system.

“NFSIS has been expanding the international relationship with other countries especially within the region of Asia including China and Japan and currently we are developing a relationship with Australia and other countries.”

While Korea’s food safety framework is well recognized internationally, according to Oh, faster and more reliable methods of detecting food contamination are still needed. Korea should adopt HACCP and Good Manufacturing Practice for all food products, he said. HACCP, a system for identifying and minimizing hazards in the production process rather than the finished product, was developed in the U.S. as part of the space program, and is based on seven principles. They include indentifying any hazards, effective monitoring and keeping written records.

“Good Manufacturing Practice and HACCP are well recognized and received by every county. In Korea, too, we should have an efficient food system. GMP and HACCP system should be mandatory for all food,” said Oh.

Perception and reality do not always align when it comes to food safety. The media has faced criticism for sensationalizing other food safety cases aside from the questionable reporting seen during the beef crisis. One of the most notorious food scares in recent history occurred in 2004, when media reported that Korean manufacturers of “mandu,” or dumplings, used pickled radish remnants destined for garbage in their products. While the media shocked the public with reports of “garbage” or “trash” in their mandu, it was later established that the use of the leftovers from the radish pickling process was permitted under the country’s food safety regulations. A subsequent KFDA investigation of 542 products found only two cases where hygiene standards had not been met.

Choi said that the food safety authorities have often failed to effectively communicate with the public, leaving room for public anxieties to grow in the vacuum of reliable information.

“It is important to present only the facts which are thoroughly based on a scientific backing. Previous government announcements failed to give confidence to the public.”

Communication

To improve communication, the authorities must also clearly lay out its long-term strategies to the public, according to Oh.

“To get better communication … (and) cooperation between government agencies and other public institutes, too, like universities and NGOs, it is very important to understand what the government is going to do. They should show short-term and long-term strategies to the public. But they haven’t yet any official strategy to do that. They have their own, but they are not publicized yet.”

Some problems are not so much systemic flaws as practical limitations. Whatever an agency’s best intentions, monitoring and enforcement has its limits. Oh said that budget constraints are a constant issue.

“There are always budget issues,” said Oh. “Those products reported are growing and growing but they cannot do everything. It is very tough work for them to do right now.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

Yoon Seong-won and Kim Bo-ra contributed to this report. ― Ed.

Readers’ Voice

Food safety...

One thing that made me uneasy was last month when China recalled a couple varieties of Korean instant noodles because of high chemical levels, but Korea didn’t and said they were fine for consumption. Just makes me uneasy when China recalls food and Korea doesn’t.

― Thomas Michael Corcoran, Seoul, via Facebook

Korea’s first woman president…

I would imagine it’s similar to what a lot of moderate Republicans felt when Obama was first elected in the U.S.: proud that the country moved forward, but why did it have to be that guy?!

― Chris Sanders, Seoul, via Facebook

Censoring porn…

Pornography, a topic that is really not explained in public and should be explained privately, is one that people do not like to speak openly about, especially when it comes to writing about it in a newspaper. More than likely, you will see pornography since everything can be found online nowadays; just type in the keyword on Naver, Google or any search engine and thousands of links will show up. You cannot hide it; the only way you can is by being a person that is not obsessed with it and focusing on other issues that are going on with your life. Sadly, the people who watch pornography are the ones that do not have a girlfriend or are sexually active people who like watching other people have sex. My point that I would like to get to is that you can do everything to censor pornography, but people will still find ways to entertain themselves.

There are so many resources that a person can use to find porn; if you censor sites on the Internet, people can still go to an adult store and watch porn there as well as buy adult films. So, you cannot really censor pornography because it is everywhere. Plus, we know that there are porn industries in every country and that they distribute as well as sell their videos in other countries for people to watch. South Korea can probably learn from China because the country does a lot of censoring; people are restricted from going to inappropriate sites, especially pornography. So, the country does a good job in censoring certain sites that people cannot go to. Though, if you censor pornography, people will be illiterate when it comes to doing the deed and will not know how to act.

So, I think (and I cannot believe that I am writing this) that pornography can be educational because it teaches the young people how to act when they meet that special someone and have sex; also, they will know what to do and will not be lost as well. So, pornography has its good and bad side; you can watch it to learn and apply it in bed when you do it with your girlfriend or wife. Though, do not watch it so much that it becomes an addiction; you have to set your boundaries. Writing this, I feel that pornography should not be censored because it can be used as a learning tool, which it can be. Though, there is a right place and right time for pornography. What I mean by this is that you do not want to expose this to your kids; they should focus on their schooling and not see those things at a young age. Though, they will eventually be exposed to this because of their friends in school. Pornography is everywhere; do I think that it should be censored? The answer is no because it will not disappear because of the demand for it; plus people will still find ways to access it even though it is censored. (Please note that everything that I have said is based on my opinion as well as my knowledge about pornography and how it is affecting society.)

―James Buhain, Reno, Nevada, United States

Women’s role in Korea…

Nowadays, when women take up to 51 percent of the population, it is the time to seriously ponder women’s roles and their impact on the society. In such a globalized world, we know that utilizing women’s unique abilities will bring politics and businesses to another level where satisfaction rates will go up for both genders. Supporting women is beneficial not only to women but also to men, since shared intellectual capacities and synergy between the two genders will create better solutions to existing problems. In this essay, I propose three main ways we can deal with our corporate tradition and social perception so that we achieve even greater success for women and for the whole society.

In order to get the best out of the workers of both genders, it’s imperative to create a better corporate environment for women. Most women have expressed that the working environments are unsuitable for them and thus they cannot utilize their full capacities, and this is especially true for those who have children. Women now assume a much more difficult task since they have to focus both on household and business work. So how about trying to mitigate their pressures by creating a space inside a company where children whose parents work can play? How about making a special room that is equipped with what women need? Every CEO should be aware that most innovative developments occur when the workers are relaxed and satisfied, not pressured. Although we have succeeded in creating an environment suitable for men, we also need to supply some spaces for women so that the corporations can get the best out of women workers as well.

We also have to work to erase certain perceptions that achievements from household work are inferior to those from business work. In one lecture I watched on YouTube, the woman lecturer was telling audience about an incident in which her fellow workers told her “what a pity,” after she mentioned that she had to go home to look after her children. Although society tries to elevate and promote raising children well and keeping a family by calling them “an investment to the future,” we still innately feel a certain perception shaped by our long tradition and history that housework that does not bring immediate monetary income is somehow inferior. Don’t we respect our mothers? Instead of saying “what a pity” to your fellow friends who have to take care of children after work, praise and show them some respect, because they are exerting much more effort than they seem to be doing.

My third proposal to better the world through accepting women as leaders is especially applicable to the Korean culture. In Korea, we have this tradition of going to “hwe-sik,” or a company meeting, where people dine together after work. In such a meeting, we obsessively force each other to drink as much alcohol as possible. Of course, this is a habit that should be eliminated even among the men, but this is even more alarming to women’s mental and physical health, especially to those who have children. Not only that, this is the time when women are sexually harassed by drunken men who have higher ranks. This leaves women powerless, confused and scared and since they are afraid that they’ll get fired if they report such misconduct, many remain defenseless. Why can’t we eliminate this culture which was shaped by men from the start of this tradition? Some say that alcohol is necessary in business life in order to get closer to people. But let me ask you, are you that coy and diffident that you cannot tell your problems or forgive others without alcohol? If we have a problem, we have to know how to fix it without the need of an external influence or matter, or else we will have no internal growth or improvement. Consumption of excessive alcohol fuels more problems and misconduct and this is dangerous especially to women. We should all stop this tradition from spreading to further generations.

Now, as the world becomes more aware of the importance of women, more corporations place women at the top and some women even step up to become CEOs themselves. For example, J.P. Morgan, the largest U.S. bank, announced placing Marianne Lake to be a chief financial officer to recognize and promote more women in power. Also, the United States now has 20 female senators and 79 female representatives who will take their places in the 113th Congress. How about women in Korea? Our gender ratio at work lags far behind other countries like the United States, Latin America and Europe. More women need to come up to the leadership roles not only in companies but also in politics since every decision made affects 51 percent of the population. As Melinda Gates said, “A world where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women would be a better world.”

― Im Ji-young, South Gyeongsang Province
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