Of the many food scandals in Taiwan’s recent history, the scandal surrounding Costco Taiwan butchers’ practices with USDA beef is the most recent.
Taiwan has had a number of food scandals in recent years, ranging from the food scandal of 2014 to the food scandal of 2013 to the food scandal of 2011. Basically, if you eat anything you don’t grow yourself, you’re taking your life in your hands.
The Republic of China – the official government of Taiwan – is (at best) laughably incompetent and (at worst) profoundly corrupt. With three major food scandals in the last four years resulting in virtually no change to prevent future scandals, the incompetence and corruption of Taiwan’s Republic of China government is undeniable.
Costco Taiwan operates under the Costco Wholesale Corporation, an American company that is famous for “warehouse club shopping.” They’re the third largest retailer in the world and have ten locations across Taiwan, operating under the laws set by the government of the Republic of China.
Thanks to the ROC getting over their ractopamine issues in 2012 (when, after the 2011 scandal, they decided the key to food safety was less regulation), American USDA beef is back on the market in a big way, especially at Costco.
Unfortunately, Costco Taiwan doesn’t keep a very high quality standard, in terms of their butchery. The beef itself is fine: you can’t change American USDA certification (where food safety law actually matters). The issue at hand is less about the quality of the meat and more with how Costco Taiwan packages steak. All food establishments require a food safety certificate, to ensure all food is safe for consumption and is the same quality it claims to be.
If you’re not familiar with “meat glue,” it’s technically called “transglutaminase,” and it’s used exactly how you think: it glues meat together. It’s often used by shoddier restaurants to take two (or more) small steaks and turn them into a larger steak, so they can serve it. When you cut into it, you can see the truth:
Now, there’s nothing to fear from meat glue. Meat glue is not toxic – it’s actually a natural enzyme – so the issue here is not food safety (unlike every other food issue in Taiwan) but the reputation of Costco Taiwan’s butchers. It’s extremely uncommon to see any butcher anywhere use meat glue because of how obvious it is, externally, when the meat is raw/packaged; any restaurant caught serving glued steak can lose a lot of face because of it, especially if it’s “a nice place.”
It’s difficult to fully describe just how bad Costco Taiwan is with their meat gluing of USDA Choice Top Sirloin, so here’s a two-minute video to show you the way it is:
As the video touched on, at the end, Costco Taiwan’s problem isn’t simply their meat gluing perfectly good steaks together for no apparent reason. Not content with feebly attempting to trick customers into buying glued-together steaks, Costco Taiwan also has a habit of carefully situating steaks so certain parts are covered by Costco Kirkland brand labels.
So, you buy a package of beef thinking it looks all nice and fresh…
Only to discover that Costco Taiwan employs deceptive and unethical butchers.
I asked Costco Taiwan employees to explain why, as I lifted many of the labels on their steak packages to show them the brown underneath (even though the rest of the package was bright red), they chose to deceptively position steaks to hide imperfections. I also asked why they glued their steaks together. Their answers ranged from laughable nonsense (e.g. “the label presses on the beef so it turns brown”) to utter denial.
With the string of Taiwan food scandals in recent history, this is sure to be one of the most mild we will see this year. Unfortunately, most Taiwanese don’t know enough about beef to notice these underhanded tactics by Costco Taiwan, and since it’s not a safety issue, there’s no pressure. Taiwanese see the USDA logo and buy the brand, regardless of how poorly Costco Taiwan chooses to provide that product to the island.
And if we’re going to talk about brands, the fact that an American multinational corporation like Costco can’t (or chooses not to) control their Costco Taiwan product speaks to a serious issue, and given the deceptiveness of the behavior of Costco Taiwan employees, it’s an all-too-typical example of lax government regulation leading to corporate misbehavior with no repercussions.
The Costco Taiwan beef scandal is really the very tip of the iceberg here in Taiwan.
July 2015 Update:
Less than a month after I published this, it was used by ETToday, who approached Costco and requested an explanation. They received similar reponses as I did when I asked…and I figured that was the end of the story. But, sure enough, I went to Costco recently and noticed they no longer had sirloin available.
When I asked a butcher why, he said it was due to some complaint that made it back to the USA corporate office, and they they would no longer import it. I pressed him, asking why, if it was what they claimed (if it was safe/legitimate), they would no longer import it. He had no answer and simply smiled and walked away.
In classic Taiwanese fashion, they can’t even say “We have a desire to achieve a high quality standard, so we’re not offering it anymore.” They just say “Oh, we’re not importing that anymore.” Regardless, the obviously shady sirloin has been removed from Costco’s shelves. And that, again, is just the tip of the iceberg…
You keep reading, I’ll keep writing.
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