Safety before profit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 1996, 12:00am

JUST as the Vitasoy scare begins to die down comes something far worse, the revelation that Nestle's new factory in Yuen Long has been pumping out dairy products for two months without securing government approval of its health and safety standards.

While there is no suggestion that any of the company's products are contaminated, nor can there be an absolute guarantee they are clean until the proper licensing procedures are complete. By not waiting before starting production, the multinational giant has taken a needless risk with the health of the people of Hong Kong purely for the sake of increased profits.

As Regional Councillors have already demanded, Nestle deserves to be prosecuted and severely punished. Yet they are not the sole villains in this incident. Nor are they the only ones operating without a licence - 117 other food companies are said to be doing likewise. Nestle's crime may be greater, since it is an international company from whom higher standards are rightly expected. But the sheer number of offenders suggests something is seriously wrong with Hong Kong's licensing procedures.

As anyone who has ever tried to open a bar or restaurant can testify, these are cumbersome beyond belief. So bad is the bureaucracy associated with the application process, that many eateries have to operate for up to a year before receiving their liquor licence.

This is not only bad for the territory's business-friendly image, it is also counter-productive for the health and safety standards the process is supposed to enforce since many applicants end up operating illegally and unregulated. Worse still, for all the powers the bureaucracy possess, the Nestle episode demonstrates they lack the ability to close down offenders.

That is no excuse for the multinational giant's actions. But it does show the urgent need to streamline licensing procedures. If necessary, any extra costs involved in expediting the process could be covered by increasing application fees. The Legislative Council would be unlikely to block this, despite its present passion for freezing government charges.

Either way, steps must be taken so that companies like Nestle, in future have no excuse for such disgraceful behaviour.