Tue, Mar 06, 2012 - Page 1 News List

Prosecutors raid bureau over flu row

CONSPIRACY?The BAPHIQ denies a cover-up, but an opposition lawmaker said officials might have kept the H5N2 outbreak quiet to help Ma’s re-election hopes

By Chris Wang  /  Staff Reporter

Chickens stand in cages before being slaughtered at a market in Taipei yesterday amid consumer worries about an outbreak of H5N2 avian influenza.

Photo: Chien Jung-fong, Taipei Times

Investigators yesterday raided the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ) and seized a number of documents as the government continued to field criticism over its handling of a bird flu outbreak.

Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office spokesperson Huang Mo-hsin (黃謀信) said prosecutors questioned several bureau officials regarding the recent outbreak of H5N2 avian influenza.

Huang said the bureau is suspected of covering up the outbreak and prosecutors are trying to determine whether officials might have committed offenses that amount to malfeasance while in office, which carry a prison sentence of between three and 10 years.

Hsu Tien-lai (許天來), a former director of the bureau who resigned on Sunday, would be questioned soon, Huang added.

Meanwhile, opposition legislators blasted President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration over the alleged cover-up, saying that food safety in Taiwan was “out of control” and that senior officials, including Ma, should be held accountable.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) legislators said that Hsu’s resignation was not the end of the matter.

Ma, vice president-elect Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), Premier Sean Chen (陳冲), as well as Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) and former Council of Agriculture minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) should all shoulder responsibility for the foul-up, the opposition lawmakers said.

Wu and Sean Chen were premier and vice premier respectively at the time the outbreak was discovered.

The council confirmed on Saturday that strains of the H5N2 avian influenza virus in Changhua County and Greater Tainan were highly pathogenic and that more than 57,000 chickens had been culled to prevent the virus from spreading.

However, the announcement came more than 70 days after Kevin H. J. Lee (李惠仁), a freelance journalist who spent more than six years investigating avian influenza in Taiwan and directed a documentary entitled A Secret That Can’t Be Exposed (不能戳的秘密), reported a possible lethal case of H5N2 to the council.

If there was an attempt to cover-up the outbreak, then the administration could have violated the regulations of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

BAPHIQ Deputy Director General Huang Kwo-ching (黃國青) yesterday denied the accusations of a cover-up, saying the council had to await the results of lab tests and weigh other factors before confirming the seriousness of the outbreak.

Huang said the council had carried out an inspection and conducted tests after learning that an egg-laying chicken farm in Changhua reported an outbreak of the virus on Dec. 27.

“After the preliminary results came out, we reported them to the OIE on Jan. 10,” Huang said, citing this as evidence that the council was not trying to hide a potential outbreak of bird flu.

However, according to TSU whip Hsu Chung-hsin (許忠信), a cover-up might have been undertaken to protect Ma’s re-election chances in the Jan. 14 presidential poll, since Lee made his report of a suspected case in late December, three weeks before the election.

“We suspect that Hsu [Tien-lai] is just a scapegoat because an official of his status would not dare to conceal a bird flu outbreak; that would be handled at the national security level,” Hsu Chung-hsin told reporters.

Hsu Chung-hsin said experts have warned that a mutation of the virus could cause it to affect humans, despite claims by the council that H5N2 is not harmful to humans.

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