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‘Nuke food’ row sheds light on irrational fears

Should Taiwan keep its ban on “nuke food” from Japan? The answer to this question is definitely “yes” if “nuke food” refers to radiation-contaminated food. But the ongoing controversy over the Japanese food ban is not really about irradiated food.

Rational discussion of the issue has been hampered by sensationalised and misleading labels on food products that Taiwan is mulling lifting the ban on: They are the ones from areas neighbouring Fukushima, which was the site of a nuclear disaster in 2011.
The misnomer “nuke food” is simply adding fuel to our fears about eating food from unsafe and dubious sources.
While the nation’s health must not be compromised, we cannot let ourselves be dictated by irrational fears.
The Japanese government has provided assurances that agricultural products from Fukushima’s neighbouring regions are safe.
But some environmentalists from Taiwan recently conducted radiation checks in those areas. Their findings led them to conclude that the radiation levels of the soil in those areas exceeded acceptable levels.
Taiwan’s health authorities have expressed reservations over the findings. They question the sampling process and the accuracy of the handheld devices used in radiation tests. They stress that more sophisticated tests must be done to determine radiation levels.
Who should we trust? While the issue could be settled by science – namely accurate scientific tests of the agricultural products and the soil of the farmlands – science has been clearly brushed aside. In its place, we have chosen to rely on our instinctive fear and chosen to believe selectively.
We instead fall into our usual scepticism of the government, believing that Taiwan and Japan are looking to work together in a “black box” to let radiation-contaminated food products pass as safe ones.
It is such scepticism that has blocked the cross-strait service trade pact. Such a pact has been standing in the way of the US bid to export ractopamine-containing pork to Taiwan. It is leading us to believe that this democratically elected government is not for the people, but rather against them. 
There is no denying that Taiwan has been under tremendous pressure to accelerate cross-strait trade and to lift the ban on US pork imports. Taiwan must also be coming under pressure from Japan to open its doors to so-called “nuke food”.
But succumbing to pressure is one thing; succumbing to pressure at the expense of the nation’s health is another. They are different phenomena, but we usually ignore the difference.
Any form of compromise would only bring accusations that the government is selling out the interests of the country. People would believe that Japan is lying about the safety of products for Fukushima’s neighbours and that Taiwan’s government must be ignoring the nation’s health by bowing to pressure from Japan.
That might be the case, but it is not necessarily so. Taiwan has mechanisms to ensure that food imports are safe, but the people choose not to trust them.
Underlying the Japanese food controversy is the people of Taiwan’s deep mistrust of the government – a mistrust that has already gone beyond a reasonable level. It doesn’t matter who the president is and which party is running the government: The mistrust has led us to believe that the government is here to cheat people.
Such an unhealthy relationship between the government and the people is very damaging to the nation. It prevents any constructive dialogue between the government and the people, and prevents any changes that require necessary compromises.
While the government must be closely monitored, we must not tie its hands. Healthy scepticism prevents us from being easily cheated, but cynicism won’t do the nation any good.
In the case of imports from Japan, we should base our arguments on science, rather than on misinformation and bias.

Published : December 09, 2016

By : The China Post Asia News Network Taipei