Regulator has big hole in consumer safety net
No one can overemphasize the importance of consumer safety to ensure public health. As such, the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) should do its best to strictly regulate food and other products that could be harmful to consumers. However, many wonder if the KFDA has a watertight safety system in place.
A recent case involving made-in-China chopsticks illustrates how poorly the agency has worked to prevent hazardous products from finding their way to tables. Last Friday, the KFDA belatedly issued a warning against the harmful effect of the chopsticks made of synthetic resins.
The warning should have come much earlier when the regulator detected formaldehyde, a cancer-causing substance, from chopstick samples in June 2011. It is hard to understand why the KFDA delayed making public the findings for about eight months. Officials have yet to give any convincing explanation for the delay.
The KFDA has come to lose public confidence. It has tried to defend itself by saying the findings were posted on its website on June 28. The posting was necessary but not sufficient to inform the public of the product hazards. The KFDA should have issued a press release immediately so consumers would avoid using the chopsticks. It should also have taken proper action to ban the distribution of the Chinese imports.
Issuing a warning through mass media is most effective in publicizing health risks. It is also mandatory under the current KFDA regulations. The agency’s failure to faithfully abide by its rules has led to the sales of 10,000 pairs of the dangerous chopsticks. It has only managed to recall less than 1 percent of them.
The KFDA has a long way to go before firmly establishing a consumer safety system. It seems to have forgotten many cases of hazardous food and other products that have hit the nation over the past years. In 2009, the detection of asbestos in baby power discredited the regulatory function. In 2008, consumers were scared about products containing Chinese milk power tainted with the harmful chemical melamine.
In 2006, the agency already found that some Chinese chopsticks contained toxic substances such as pesticides and bleaching agents. But it neglected obligations to take all necessary measures to stop such harmful products from being imported. Its negligence has continued to expose consumers to health risks.
Now it’s time for the KFDA to spare no efforts to set up a better system to ferret out harmful and substandard products in cooperation with government ministries, local authorities and consumer groups. Such efforts are crucial to ensuring consumer safety when over 90 percent of the nation’s food supply comes from foreign imports, especially from China.