Cholera scare calls for heightened vigilance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2003, 12:00am

The food supply in Hong Kong is remarkably fresh, especially when compared with other developed parts of the world. Fish, poultry and meat come to our dining tables through a relatively short supply chain, often with little packaging or handling in between. The benefits are better taste and, arguably, better nutrition and lower cost.

But the flipside is a need to be more vigilant about hygiene, as fresh foods are transported in warmer weather and sometimes displayed in markets with little or no refrigeration. When it comes to seafood, the need for caution is extremely high. The cases of cholera found in our markets this past week demonstrate that.

Even as it investigates how the deadly and contagious disease came to be found in its fish tanks, one local supermarket chain has come out defensively, pinning the blame on its fish suppliers. The efforts that ParknShop has made to close and clean its 50 fresh fish counters and to discover the source of contamination are commendable, but the chain's finger-pointing misses the point of what it means to be a responsible food retailer.

True, the problem is not ParknShop's alone. A separate instance of cholera was found at a wet market this week, and a small number of people develop cholera each year from locally consumed seafood. The danger is always there, given the high levels of bacteria in some of the region's waters. Because of this, it would be ideal if the fish retailing system were better able to keep track of the fish as they pass through the system.

There are also suggestions that the government may release detailed recommendations on where freshwater for fish storage can be collected and other safety measures. These should be acted on where practicable.

As for ParknShop, one of its stores now faces prosecution over the discovery of cholera. The chain will not reopen its fish counters until it understands how the contamination happened. It insists that its own system for transporting and storing the fish cannot be a factor because its water supply for transport comes from a location between Lamma and Cheung Chau islands, while the storage medium at stores is treated tap water. The company would do well to investigate this water source and its own transport and storage arrangements, instead of rejecting out of hand the possibility that there may be some connection to the cholera cases. If, in the end, the source of bacteria is traced to suppliers, it simply smacks of arrogance to imply that the chain has no responsibility for the food that it retails.

This recent scare will not alter consumers' shopping preferences drastically. Shoppers will most likely return to their favourite markets, whether they are chain stores or wet markets. Such trust has to be redeemed through dependability and accountability from the retailers.