Taiwan has a problem, and it’s not just the government
Chen Ting- chi might look just like another senior Taiwanese man but he is in fact Taiwan’s answer to Colonel Sanders. Four decades ago, he invented Taiwan fried chicken based on recipes inherited from his father.
The snack became an instant hit and people flocked to him, some to try the chicken, some to learn from him. He later established the company, The Taiwan First Store, selling custom- made pepper — the key to the fried chicken’s taste — to its “Taiwan First Fried Chicken” franchisees ( currently more than 3,000). Chen was recognized as the creator of the quintessential Taiwanese snack and was hailed as a success story by the government.
This week Taiwan First, now run by Chen’s son and daughter, admitted to having used industrial- grade magnesium carbonate in its pepper products since 2008. The chemical additive costs a fraction of its edible counterpart but is banned in food products as it can cause damage to health including damage to the liver and the kidneys.
The damning revelation of tainted Taiwan First fried chicken pepper marks the latest of a series of food scandals. The list of recent food scares is so long that it challenges not only people’s faith in Taiwan’s food industry but also their ability to simply keep track of all the scandals. The fall to disgrace of such a stock Taiwan food business also serves as a symbol of the problems the nation faces.
Taiwan has always prided itself as a nation of “good people.” The saying “People are the best scenery in Taiwan” is commonly known and widely accepted in the nation. The strength of the night markets as an authentic Taiwanese experience in part stems from the image that these markets are run by honest, hardworking Taiwanese people like Chen senior.
Since the discovery of the long- time use of plasticizers ( banned for their effects on hormones and for other damage to health) in food and drinks in 2011, the public has seen their nation’s image as a “gourmet kingdom” providing safe and reliable food shattered. Most of the time the blame lies squarely with the usual suspects — unscrupulous businessmen and a government too incompetent to crack down on them.
While the government is responsible for ensuring Taiwan’s food safety, the almost endless revelations of food scandals have shown that Taiwan’s problems are more widespread and profound. Dishonesty is not exclusive to politicians; it runs deep in Taiwanese society.
Some of the businesses caught in food scandals, for example Taiwan First, shifted from their previous honest practices and used cheap illegal chemicals to cut corners. Others, such as Ben Hur Spices and Chemicals in the 2011 plasticizer scandal, had used banned additives from day one.
In a way similar to how the revelations of the sinking of the ferry Sewol opened the eyes of South Koreans to the damage of years of corner- cutting, Taiwan’s food scandals also amount to a moment of reckoning for the public. The nation has blindly pursued economic growth since the beginning of the “Taiwan Miracle.” Every politician makes “fighting for the economy” ( ) his or her top priority and the public cheer them for it.
In such an environment, important ideas such as honesty, justice, sustainability and safety have taken a back seat, resulting in the decline of Taiwanese values both tangible and intangible, which in turn hurts the nation’s economy. For however much Taiwan First saved in its seven years of cheating, it does not even come close to making up for the loss of trust in the brand.
The wrongful assertion of the supremacy of financial gains is deep- rooted in Taiwanese society, affecting everyone from politicians to business leaders, to small entrepreneurs and to “everyday people.” It is easy to criticize others but it is time to do more than that. It is time for Taiwan to begin its soul- searching, to tally the damages done and to correct course.