Food has stepped beyond its conventional role as a basic necessity for survival, serving as one of the pillars sustaining human civilization. Through the emergence of mukbang1), foodporn2) feeds on Instagram, and other contents related to cuisine, today’s trends can be seen to be intimately enmeshed with food. Unlike the hype surrounding this newly emerging trend, the management of food does not seem to attract much concern. In fact, many tend to assume that safety regarding food, biological products, and quasi drugs are guaranteed to be harmless, owing to the advancement in modern technology. However, recent outbreaks of safety issues have proved this assumption to be deceiving.
Basic Table Manners—Do not Play with Food
It comes as no surprise to learn that Korea is one of the top importers of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops, as the population heavily relies on imported crops and leads the world in highest per-capita instant noodle consumption. Earlier this year, in February, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) revised its policies regarding the labeling of GM ingredients. Nevertheless, there were particular clauses in those policies that raised concerns and controversies among the public. The regulation necessitated all food production corporations to label the GMO crops traced in the final products, while casting exemptions on ingredients like corn syrup, cooking oil, and soy sauce.
▲ Provided by Shina Ilbo. The Egg Scare
The public firmly asserted that they should be notified with the entire list of ingredients involved in the production process, demanding the government to amend the clause in question, while big food corporations pressured the government to maintain the status quo. The MFDS is currently stuck in a rut, not taking any active measure in response to the growing call for stricter regulations on labeling GM ingredients. This stalemate allows Korean food firms to evade their responsibility to fulfill the consumers’ rights to know what they are consuming, engendering greater fear over threats to food safety.
Not too long after, the egg scare followed the GMO incident in the heat of moment. On August 14, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) announced that some eggs at a farm in Namyangju were found to have been contaminated with the pesticide fipronil3 . On the same day, eggs produced from farms in Gwangju were found to be infested with mites, containing an excessive amount of bifenthrin, an insecticide used to exterminate ants. The public frenzy over these tainted eggs has intensified further, as the farms later turned out to be government-certified organic producers.
The public criticized the government’s measures, as it failed to meet its obligation to put forth further justifications regarding the incident. MFDS Minister Ryu Young-jin came under fire for trying to throw the public off the scent, as he insisted none of the locally produced eggs had been contaminated, even before the ministry completed testing on a sufficient number of samples. In addition, despite announcing that the eggs had been scientifically proven to be safe for consumption, the ministry did not fully answer questions as to why the government is destroying all the contaminated eggs. Such ambiguity and self-contradiction have created greater fear and confusion among the public.
Supposed Hygiene Products Found Toxic
The MFDS has intervened beyond issues regarding food production, intruding into drug inspection as well. In the recent outbreak of incidents involving female disposable sanitary pads, an increasing number of women reported to have suffered a range of unforeseen side effects, such as painful cramps, reduced menstrual bleeding, and fluctuations in menstrual periods after using Korean-made pads. According to the current inspection criteria, the MFDS checks a total of nine types of chemicals in sanitary pads, while the core chemical at the center of controversy, volatile organic compounds (VOC), remains excluded.
▲ Provided by KBS News. MFDS Minister Ryu Young-Jin
Members of the civic group Korean Women’s Environmental Network have demanded the government strengthen its regulations regarding the inspections on sanitary pads, after they were found to contain toxic chemicals. However, the MFDS denied the research findings conducted by the Network team, claiming that they lacked credibility. Even after announcing that it is preferable to ignore the test, the ministry has released the data and informed the names of problematic products for those who wanted more information on the matter. While this move was meant to serve as a pretext for government transparency, it only ended up amplifying social anxiety.
Putting an End to the Vicious Cycle
When scrutinizing such a series of incidents, it becomes evident that there is a recurring pattern. It starts with individual consumers who file complaints through online reviews and social media, after which it gradually snowballs into a serious issue that raises a red flag. The government then responds in a cursory manner, and it is only after an incident hits the media and a mass hysteria breaks out that the government starts to take the matter seriously, which is too late for any meaningful damage control.
▲ Provided by Hankook Ilbo. Participants of civic groups in front the Government Complex –Seoul
Rather than revealing research reports and announcing that such findings are unreliable, the government should conduct valid and scientifically proven experiments that will make it crystal-clear whether a product is safe to use. In addition, a lack of standardization among relevant authorities causes discrepancies in labeling hazardous materials, complicating the issue even further. With these inconsistent standards on chemical substance usage, such problems are expected to continue in the future.
The MFDS has been criticized for constantly beating around the bush and concealing the truth regarding food and drug safety, and this string of safety incidents is yet another reminder that responsibility is to be shared by every stakeholder, from the government and food manufacturers to retailers and consumers. Government organizations and consumer advocacy organizations must initiate steady efforts to educate the public regarding safe food handling practices, while consumers are encouraged to push beyond acknowledging their rights, to actively demanding increased transparency in the supply chain and more accountability from the government.
1) Mukbang: A trending live stream broadcast of a host eating while interacting with their audience.
2) Foodporn: images that portray food in a very appetizing way, often seen in social media.
3) Fipronil: An insecticide that disrupts the insect central nervous system.