Closing the loopholes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:00am

The row over the use of the artificial sweetener stevioside in some popular, mainly Japanese, snacks has exposed a major flaw in the food surveillance programme of Hong Kong and also, for that matter, Singapore.

Snacks containing the sweetener have been sold in both places for years, but this did not come to light until a company which deals in it wrote to the Straits Times asking for permission from the Environment Ministry to sell its products in the Lion City. That alerted the ministry, and then the Hong Kong health authorities, to take action to recall the snacks. Until then, routine testing of food samples in both places had apparently failed to test for stevioside because it was not declared in the labels.

SAR health officials tried to put on a brave face yesterday, arguing that it was impossible to check for the presence of all kinds of additives and that they did try to test the levels of about 10 commonly used sweeteners.

Admittedly, exhaustive tests to find out each and every ingredient contained in any sample are both unnecessary and wasteful. But as Japanese snacks are hugely popular here, a pro-active health authority should have tried to compare the food safety guidelines of Japan and Hong Kong to identify gaps that may highlight areas of concern. Had that been done, stevioside would have certainly been exposed as an issue and Japanese manufacturers told not to export snacks containing it to Hong Kong. Now that such snacks have indeed been imported, those responsible should be dealt with according to the law.

Some manufacturers of such snacks argue that stevioside is safe for consumption and is not banned on the mainland, Korea or Japan. But it is up to them to change the minds of the World Health Organisation, which considers it unsafe and whose rules Hong Kong follows.

To make the job of detecting banned additives easier, labelling laws will need to be tightened to require manufacturers to list the names and amounts of additives used.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will now set up a special unit to test for sweeteners. That is a welcome remedy. But no amount of resources will be adequate to plug all loopholes unless the department changes the objectives of its tests from looking for what is reportedly there to what should not be there.