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Taiwan: Prisoners turn artisan chefs as ‘jail food’ takes off

These inmates are part of a burgeoning food industry in Taiwan --artisan snacks, made behind bars.

By: AFP | Taoyuan | Published: December 30, 2016 10:48:00 am

If it were not for the locked doors, knives chained to the table and uniformed staff, the food factory inside Taoyuan women’s prison would resemble any commercial kitchen. Inmates wearing masks and hair nets mix cocoa powder to make chocolate, or chop cabbage to marinate for kimchi. They are part of a burgeoning food industry in Taiwan –artisan snacks, made behind bars. The additive-free delicacies made by prison inmates have gained a loyal public following, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

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Demand is driven by quality and affordability after a string of food safety scandals has made Taiwan consumers extra vigilant.

Last year sales revenue reached more than 500 million Taiwanese dollars (USD 15.62 million), with money going towards victim compensation, improvement of facilities and a wage for inmates.

Some prisoners, like 39-year-old Chen, had little culinary experience before joining the production line in Taoyuan, in the north of the island.

The prison rolls out a wide range of snacks, from sweets to fermented tofu.

“I’m happy to learn some useful skills,” Chen told AFP.

“I didn’t know how to use a kitchen knife properly before as my mother always cooked for me and I didn’t need to go into the kitchen.

“I’ve learnt that it looks simple to make food, but it’s actually quite complicated.”

Inmates near release or parole can apply for the programme and are prioritised. Long-term prisoners who are judged to have behaved well or have relevant experience can also apply.

The range of jail-made food bought from prisons across Taiwan includes local favourites such as pineapple cake and peanut brittle, as well as soy sauce and free-range chicken.

More than 50 prisons make around 300 types of product which can be ordered by the public by phone, online or by fax, or bought direct from prison offices.

“We use good ingredients and we do not use additives or over-process food to make profits,” said Chiu Hung-chi, deputy chief of the Agency of Corrections.

“Our foods are natural, high quality and inexpensive,” he added.

It is a winning sales pitch to a public wary after big-name companies were found to have adulterated their products with banned chemicals or recycled “gutter oil” to lower costs, which led to massive recalls of food items in recent years.

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