YOU MAY have heard about melamine, trans-fats, MSG, food poisoning, and so on. These words are related to recent social controversies regarding food safety. Food safety issues have shocked many people, revealing dangerous aspects of today’s processed foods and the poor sanitary conditions of some restaurants. Since food is one of the essentials in our lives, any trivial problems related to food safety cannot be ignored. This time, The Yonsei Annals had the opportunity to ask 1,015 Yonseians about how they view the level of food safety in Korea and how much they know about food safety.
Harmfulness of food additives
The “Melamine issue”, which is also called the “Chinese milk scandal”, started in China in 2008, and then spread all around the world, revealing dangers for food safety. Korea was also affected by the melamine issue: snacks sold under Korean brands were found to be tainted with melamine. People were shocked that they were eating the harmful ingredient, which causes nephritis and renal calculus. Melamine is not the only case that has aroused concerns regarding safety of food additives, however. Controversies regarding food color and MSG are still going on. Even though people have heard of, or experienced, various cases which revealed dangers of additives, though, people do not stop eating food additives. Rather, processed foods, which contain food additives, have become one of our main sources for meals.
Not many people seem to know about the main ingredients of processed foods, however. There are some reasons why people are not familiar with food additives. First of all, there is not enough information available to the public about additives in manufactured foods. This is because of the government’s and enterprises’ inactive release of information. Abe Tsukasa, the writer of simplified great trick made by men; food additives wrote in his book that, "The foods industry doesn't open information about food additives to the public. Thus, consumers cannot know what additives are used, why they are used, and how they are made.” Of course, though "nutrition labels" of processed food provide basic information about its ingredients, still information is not sufficient for consumers. Also, although the government and the Korea Food & Drug Administration (KFDA) provide some basic information about additives, their words and terminology are a little difficult for average people. On March 8th, 2006, an episode of the TV program, In Depth 60 Minutes, “Cookies threaten, my child is in danger” dealt with the harmfulness of food additives. It emphasized that government and enterprises should verify the safety of food additives by scientific methods. It ended with a comment, “It is time to focus on how to change dangerous raw materials into safe materials. There should be sufficient investments and open tests about additives.”
As well as the role of government and enterprises, the role of consumers is important to solve problems of food additives. However, it seems that people do not consider the problems of food additives seriously. When asked to place six factors that are considered when people buy processed food in order of importance, “additives” took the fifth place. Most students placed priority on general factors like “taste” and “price”.
Such a tendency among students, which prioritizes factors like taste and price, shows students’ indifference toward food additive issues. Nevertheless, people tend to worry about food additives when problems regarding food additives arise in society. A total of 37.14% respondents said they would buy the processed foods which are suspected to be harmful for humans, after the safety of that corresponding food was confirmed. On the other hand, 32.12% of respondents said they would stop consumption just for a while. We can see that most students seem careful in choosing manufactured foods in times when social controversies about certain food additives arise. However, after some time goes by, people do not seem to care about additives any longer.
Poor sanitation of food services
In the past, most meals were home-made. These days, however, people prefer to eat out unlike the past. Even when it is not a special day, people often eat out to try various kinds of foods, or just for convenience. Therefore, it can be said that the hygiene level of food services determines large parts of the overall hygiene level of foods consumed in our society.
Last April, the Student Association (SA) issued a list of food delivery enterprises near school which had broken some basic standards and rules related to hygiene. There were 14 names of restaurants and food delivery enterprises nearby Yonsei Univ. As many students eat food in restaurants outside school or use food delivery services, the list of unsanitary businesses was shocking to many students. This poor hygienic condition of food services was also found on the students’ responses regarding impurities in foods. About 53.00% respondents said that when they ate out or consumed food from delivery services, they have found impurities in food several times. This result is similar to the result of inspections done by Seoul city last year about the sanitary condition of food delivery services. Last year, Seoul city inspected 130 food delivery services from June to August. Among them, 71 services, which form about 55% of the whole, turned out as poor sanitary services or unpermitted businesses. Moreover, it turned out that 26 out of 50 Chinese restaurants were keeping foods past their expiration dates. Many food delivery services do not seem to care much about their sanitation level. Several media reports give explanations for this. According to their analysis, since food delivery enterprises get orders by phone and only their locations are revealed to consumers, they become careless about sanitation. Reflecting such poor sanitary conditions of delivery services, 18.62% of students replied that they have experienced physical symptoms like food poisoning or stomachache because of unsanitary foods from delivery services. A total of 34.53% of the respondents who have experienced physical symptoms said “food delivery service” was the reason for their symptoms.
However, a much more serious problem about food hygiene is people’s perception of it. A lot of students seem indifferent to the sanitary levels of food services. When the question about the hygiene levels of delivery enterprise food was asked to students, many students showed dissatisfaction toward the general level of sanitation of restaurants or delivery enterprises. However, they thought poor hygiene is not directly related to their health. A total of 48.57% replied that they think foods of delivery enterprises are not hygienic, but not harmful for health. Kwak (President of Col. of Human Ecology) explained that students’ generous attitude toward unsanitary enterprises is similar to the consumers’ low perception of the importance of food hygiene. Kwak said, “On TV, there are still some unhygienic scenes. For example, a scene in which family members who scoop from a soup served in one pot. However, nobody complains about these sorts of unhygienic scenes.” She insisted that, “To increase consumers’ perception of food hygiene, there should be some friendly websites which provide information about food safety and food hygiene in detail.” It seems that promoting understanding of food hygiene is the most urgent task to build better hygienic conditions in our society.
Uncertainty over genetically modified food
Most people are familiar with the term genetically modified (GM) food, because there have been some controversies over GM food in our society. Some people insist that GM foods will give various advantages to people, like micronutrients, edible vaccines, resistance to environmental stress, etc. The other side insists, however, that GM foods will be harmful to the human body. Such a controversy regarding GM food is also found in students’ responses. A total of 42.07% said they think GM food is not safe completely, but not much harmful to health. On the other hand, the same figure, 42.07%, said GM food would be very harmful to human health as time goes by. On April 22nd, a consumer group, Consumers Korea, requested the prohibition of GM corn to KFDA. Jin Jeong-ran (Researcher, Consumers Korea) said “GM food is not yet proved safe scientifically. To protect consumers’ health, Consumers Korea will have a signature collection campaign against importation of GM corn.” She also insisted that foods which are not proved safe should not be commercialized, or at least be supervised strictly.
Health functional food
As people’s interest in well-being and health is growing, health functional food is getting more popular too. According to the Korean Health Supplement Association (KHSA), the functional food market is increasing by 10% ~ 20% every year. These functional foods are eaten regardless of generation. A majority of respondents (69.46%) said they have taken health functional foods. However, 31.33% of them replied that they do not know well about the effects of the functional foods they have eaten. Moreover, 44.98% of the respondents who have taken the functional foods said that they bought health functional foods through acquaintances’ recommendations or word-of-mouth. It seems that students do not seem to know well about the functional foods, rather than any preference for functional foods. Probably, students may only see the functional foods’ overall objective, which pursues promoting health, and accept functional foods positively without any other considerations. In fact, you should be careful when you choose your functional food. Without deep consideration, you can misunderstand about functional foods and can be deceived by advertisements.
One common misunderstanding about functional food is the perception that regards functional food as a kind of medicine for ailments. KHSA explains that the health functional food helps promote health functionally but it does not cure diseases directly. Also, KHSA says that too much expectation about the function of functional food is not desirable, since the functional food is not medicine for treatment. Moreover, KHSA advises that selecting functional foods which fit one’s body is very important.
Have you ever taken health functional food?
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We have looked into some issues related to harmfulness of food additives, sanitation of eating out services, and uncertainty over GM food. Fortunately, there have been movements for better food safety in many areas. Some processed food companies started to use less food additives that are harmful to health and some restaurants and food delivery services began to try to make more hygienic conditions by themselves. Moreover, the government has introduced several policies, such as Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) for better food safety in our society. Nevertheless, the most significant role should be taken by consumers. Criticism alone is not sufficient to make food safer. Having a constant interest in food safety and keeping eyes on government policies is required to make better conditions for our foods.
How many times a week do you eat processed food as meals?
1 ~ 2 (40.39%)
3 ~ 4 (34.68%)
5 ~ 6 (9.66%)
More than 7 times (7.69%)
No response (0.30%)
Please place the following factors in order of importance when you buy processed food.
The first - Taste (47.59%)
The second ? Price (41.67%)
The third ? Expiration date (23.35%)
The fourth ? Manufacturer (18.62%)
The fifth ? Food additives (25.71%)
When a certain food or ingredient is suspected to be harmful, how do you respond?
Do not take seriously and buy the food (18.92%)
Stop buying just for a while (32.12%)
Buy after the food is proved safe (37.14%)
Never buy the food again (11.13%)
What do you think of foods from restaurants or delivery services?
Absolutely hygienic (0.89%)
Somewhat hygienic (10.54%)
Not hygienic, but not much harmful to health (48.57%)
Not hygienic and harmful to health (30.25%)
Absolutely unhygienic (7.19%)
Do not know (1.68%)
No response (0.89%)
Have you ever experienced physical symptoms like food poisoning or stomachache, because of foods from restaurants or delivery services?
No response (0.79%)
What do you think of genetically modified food?
Not harmful to the body (3.94%)
Not perfect, but not much harmful to health (42.07%)
More danger would come as generations change (42.07%)
Directly harmful to body (8.77%)
No response (0.69%)