Taiwan’s Incredible Edible Revolution

In a country where tainted food scandals are all-too-common and the government turns a blind eye, a band of hardy housewives resolves to feed their families on their own terms.

Taiwan’s Incredible Edible Revolution

Rei-ying Fang is driving to Maoli, the countryside beyond the industrial haze of Taichung City, Taiwan. A farmer, Hong Xiang, has for the last dozen years worked with Taiwan’s largest consumer food co-op, the Homemakers Union Consumer Co-op, supplying it with organic radishes, sweet potatoes and watermelon. Xiang has injured her hand and needs help gathering the daikon radishes in her field. Fang, a woman in her mid-forties with a short, stylish haircut and a generous laugh, is in charge of membership at the Homemakers Union. She has put posters all over the co-op stores in Taichung City, trying to urge as many people as possible to come help pull radishes out of the earth.

It is February 2014, and the air is cool in Taiwan, though the sun will be bright over the fields; we are wearing layers. Fang drives out of the blanched, concrete and aluminum sprawl of Taichung, down the freeways that pass through Maoli’s hills, pale, straw-like grass waving alongside the freeway. She tells me about the co-op’s work and invites me to a protest against a new nuclear power plant next week; we talk about our unsuccessful but hopeful efforts to get local teenagers out into the fields today, and how they would, naturally, rather sleep in.

Rei-Ying Fang and Hong Xiang in the fields. (Photos by Karen Bender)
Rei-Ying Fang and Hong Xiang in the fields. (Photos by Karen Bender)

When we get to the village, Wan Bao, a man is waving cars into a parking lot beside a large temple; the cars angle into whatever spaces they can find. Volunteers have driven about forty minutes from Taichung, and also from neighboring Hsinchu, and they barrel out of their cars, wearing wide-brimmed hats against the sun and gloves, ready to pull radishes. About a hundred people have come out. We drive down the road and park by a brown field lacy with the green radish tops, a huge silver wind turbine turning silently in the distance.

Everyone pours onto the field in a cheerful, disorganized way, clutching plastic bags. Some women hand out yarn gloves for people to use when pulling the long green radish stalks out of the ground. Small white butterflies zip across the field, and a couple boys go after a butterfly with a trowel. For many of the people here, it is the first time they have picked radishes, and the event has the quality of an extended photo op; families toss radishes into a large pile, hold up their iPhones and take smiling photos beside the vegetables they have just picked.

This month, legislator Hsin-ying Hsu said that the Taiwanese government’s “Good Manufacturing Practice” label had come to mean “Give Me Poison.”

Taiwan has been plagued by food scandals for many years, including several well-publicized stories in the past year alone. In one, major food companies were implicated in producing cooking oil that contained copper chlorophyllin, a prohibited additive that could affect the liver; some companies also mixed grapeseed and olive oils with the less expensive cottonseed oil and then sold them as 100 percent olive oil. Also in 2013, food starch, an important ingredient used in the popular Taiwanese drink bubble tea, was found to be tainted with maleic acid, an additive that can cause kidney failure when consumed in large quantities. In 2011, soft drink makers were accused of using industrial plasticizer as a substitute for more expensive palm oil in their drink products. The South China Morning Post reported that the substitution saved the companies money, but the chemical could lead to health problems in children.

Most recently, in September 2014, Taiwan food distributor Chang Guann was accused of selling recycled oil made from restaurant and slaughterhouse waste, then mixing it with lard to make cooking oil. Dubbed “gutter oil” in the press, about 645 tons of the tainted oil was sold to more than 1,200 restaurants, schools and food processors, and used in products like dumplings, pineapple cakes, moon cakes, noodles, dumplings and buns. Products containing the oil had been sold overseas, to Brazil, France, Hong Kong, mainland China, Macau, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States. The sale of Taiwanese products in Hong Kong was halted. The International Business Times said that the scandal could result in a shortage of groceries, as affected items were taken off store shelves. No one has reported getting sick from the oil, but it is described as “not fit for human consumption.” The South China Morning Post showed a photo of the company’s chairman, Wen-hsiang Yeh, drinking a cup of the oil to prove it was “safe,” and on September 14, Yeh was detained on suspicion of fraud, to “prevent him from potentially colluding with witnesses, destroying evidence, or fleeing.”

This month, legislator Ting-fei Chen said in a legislative session, “The government is the product that needs to be taken off the shelves.” In an editorial on September 18, The New York Times editorial board decried Taiwan’s lax food standards, and called on the Taiwanese authorities to do more than react on an “ad-hoc basis to ensure that what people eat is safe.”

For almost twenty years, a group of women in Taiwan have been effectively doing just that.

In the fall of 2013, Shu-Te Hwang, the chairperson of the Homemakers Union Consumer Co-op, sat with me in the workshop room of one of the Taichung City co-op stores. It is a small store, maybe thirty by 100 feet, and holds a motley array of food items. There are silver-wrapped packages of medicinal herbs from China, frozen fish, meat from Australia, organic bok choy, broccoli, watercress, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, packages of tofu, hunks of cheese. There is fair trade dark chocolate. There is organic cooking oil, vinegar, pasta, noodles, and there are socks and underwear made of organic cotton.

A volunteer pours us pink hibiscus tea and sets mung bean cakes in front of us. Hwang, fifty-five, patiently goes over the co-op’s history in Taiwan.

The co-op’s basic values includes concern about the environment, supporting local producers, collective purchase and promoting the cooperative movement. Its beginnings can be traced to 1987, when the strict martial law that governed the country from 1945 to 1987 was lifted. According to Hwang, “Before 1987, it was difficult for people to register as an association, for under martial law, the freedom of association and freedom of speech were both restricted.”

But during the mid-1980s, many special-interest groups started to form, among them the Awakening Foundation, a group related to women’s rights, particularly the rights of divorced women, and a consumer rights foundation, responding to an environmental scandal in the late 1970s; machines were being used to make rice germ oil, which contaminated the oil with PCBs. It took a year for the government to figure out what was happening, and in the meantime, the PCBs acted as an endocrine disruptive agent; the result was called Yu-cheng disease, and after consuming the contaminated oil women had miscarriages and premature births; children who were exposed suffered cognitive impairment.

The Homemakers Union emerged during a time where there was increasing interest in environmental issues. Originally called ‘The New Environment Foundation,” the union was initially a group of professors and their wives. The professors, mostly men, wanted to hold meetings at night, after class. The wives wanted to meet during the day, as most of them had to go home to prepare dinner that night.

“So the women split off,” Hwang says, and “in 1989 they registered as the Homemakers United Foundation (HUF). In Chinese characters, this translates to Housewife Alliance.”

In 1993, the committee of consumption quality of the HUF started to purchase organic rice and grapes, through a buying club. The first collective buying began in Taipei; the organization announced this in newspapers, and rice and grapes were delivered to individual houses.

“One of the early members knew a farmer who used less pesticide and sold to Japan, which had stricter laws. They had 300 bags of rice and 400 boxes of grapes,” says Hwang. The first members delivered products by themselves, via scooter, in the early 1990s; the buying club then became the co-op.

Hwang says that the co-op first had to find farmers whom they could trust to use organic methods. In 1995 they worked with National Taiwan University on a project involving rice paddies near Taipei. The group wanted to reuse old rice paddies, working with farmers to help them use less chemicals and fertilizer. They had to teach farmers which vegetables grow more successfully each season.

“We made the prices stable all year round,” she says, “instead of having them fluctuate with season. It was hard to persuade housewives to buy ugly vegetables, sometimes with worms.”

Fang explains that the co-op has different labels for products. Green, or organic, means no pesticides are used in the product. Orange means healthy, and that farmers can use pesticides but that there’s no residue in the product. Purple means that the product has some pesticides; there is some residue but at a safe level.

“We do allow pesticides on some products or they won’t grow,” says Fang. “Our standard for pesticides is half of government standards.”

The membership of the co-op is ninety percent women. When the organization began, “none of us were business savvy,” says Hwang. She was trained as a veterinarian. In the beginning, she says, co-op members didn’t know how to borrow money or build a business. In 1994, for example, they didn’t have enough capital to rent a warehouse or to pay the salaries to grow the business. “We were a group, and couldn’t get a loan from the bank,” says Hwang. “We didn’t have an asset. Women usually don’t have an asset.”

So the group established a worker’s co-op, with twenty founding members each contributing 20,000 NT$ (about $600 USD) as capital share for the co-op. This was the group’s first capital raised to try out collective purchasing. By 1999, they had 2.5 million NT$ — all from volunteers’ investments. “We didn’t need to depend on the bank to raise capital,” she says.

The co-op expanded and now works with about 120 farmers, with forty-three stores in Taiwan, and, as of March 2014, about 400 employees and more than 53,000 members. To be able to buy at the co-op, you have to sign up to be a member and pay an annual fee of 360 NT (about $10), plus a one-time fee (share capital, refundable) of 2,000 NT$ (about $60).

The co-op depends on the bonds of trust with members, that their food is what they say it is. “We tell the truth to our members. If we do something wrong, we tell our members, and we will correct it,” said Hwang.

For example, during the 2013 starch scandal, “We checked all of our food items to see if the starch was in it. We carried a type of a bean curd pudding…the starch in it was O.K., but we tried to get a new starch. But that one had problems, so we had to switch back.”

Another example is Chinese medicine — the co-op sells products like hawthorn, lotus seed and dried mushroom. The import volume for these ingredients from China is so huge that Taiwan’s government doesn’t routinely check the shipments. The co-op sends the shipments to a certified lab for testing for pesticide residue and heavy metals. A couple of years ago, dried mushrooms that were imported from China contained organophosphate, a nerve-damaging pesticide. The government at that time didn’t check for pesticides. Hwang says that the group did it themselves with volunteers.

Fang says that a local lab checks all the vegetables for nitrates that could come from fertilizer. The government has no standard for testing nitrates in vegetables; the co-op is the only organization in Taiwan to check daily for nitrate levels.

Peggy Chen, an associate professor of food science at Tunghai University in Taichung City (and a friend of Shu-Te Hwang from high school), understands why consumers might be distrustful of the food industry in Taiwan. In reaction to the 2013 cooking oil scandal, for example, she says, “the Department of Food Hygiene Welfare examined each company’s oil and published whether they were qualified or not. First, the government said they couldn’t tell whether the oil had been mixed or not with the current examining equipment.”

Consumers were mad because the government did not respond quickly or efficiently; Professor Chen says, “It’s not hard to tell if the oils were mixed or not because they have different burning points. Then, after the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) were established, the government started examining different batches.”

The Taiwanese legislature has made some new laws about food regulation; in 2013, the Ministry of Health and Welfare amended food sanitation regulations to require the listing of flavoring ingredients on food product labels; this law, however, irritated foreign companies, including Coca-Cola, who did not want to reveal their “secret formula.” In January 2014, Taiwan’s legislature passed amendments to the Act Governing Food Sanitation; Taiwan’s food manufacturers will only be allowed to use the 799 compound food additives approved by Taiwan’s FDA; the maximum fine for violating food hygiene laws has been increased from $15 million to $50 million.

Ms. Hwang notes that “every time there’s a food scandal, our membership increases.”

“People tend not to trust an organic label, because they don’t particularly trust a government logo,” says Professor Chen. “But they will trust certain marketing channels, and among them is the co-op.”

In Hong Xiang’s field, the piles of the large white radishes are growing. A young journalist from Liberty Times is reporting the story. We take pictures of each other; he wonders why I’m here and I wonder why he’s reporting this. He says, “It’s not very usual to have so many people come to help.”

Hong Xiang stands in the field, pleased and bemused by the crowd chattering across her radish fields. Wearing a maroon cardigan with jeans, she slices the tops off radishes with a knife that resembles a sickle, then drops them into a plastic bag. A friend stands by her, holding a toddler, and Xiang trades the sickle knife for the toddler, who is gently placed in her arms. She is surprised at the number of people here — there are about a hundred people working on her field.

“She’s trying to get the farmer villages to work together,” translates Fang. “Usually farmers work more separately. But now there are partners who work on one farm one day, and another the next.”

Another farmer, Xie Xiao Yi, adds, “Working together is easier. If you do it alone, you get tired.”

Across the large field, radishes are being tossed into piles. Where are we supposed to put them? No one seems to know. “Actually, Hong Xiang said she got help yesterday from a local farmer so today the turnips the people collect are free,” says Fang. “She says because the co-op supports her they are a gift to us. She wanted us to experience the work on the farm.”

A group shot after the radishes have been collected.
A group shot after the radishes have been collected.

Everyone on the field seems grateful for the experience — to be here on the farm, to help, to pull the radishes out of the dirt, to meet the person who grows their food. There is a group photo, everyone assembling behind a banner of the co-op, children in front, each clutching a turnip. San, er, yi, calls someone, (three, two, one). Everybody cheers, and the pale radishes are held up like trophies.