Legislators demand faster food licensing
Panel members say it is unfair that the process can take up to six months, but department defends its 'one-stop shop' policy
Lawmakers yesterday urged the government to speed up food business licensing procedures, saying the illegal opening of Langham Place premises highlighted the need for a smoother system.
Legislator Andrew Cheng Kar-foo told a Legislative Council subcommittee studying the streamlining of licensing that a more efficient system was needed.
'Of course, we have to take safety into account, but the existing licensing procedures are way too complicated. They can actually be simplified,' he said.
Mr Cheng suggested the department use the services of authorised people in the private sector to issue hygiene, building, fire safety and ventilation certificates to shorten the processing time for getting a licence.
Buildings Department and Fire Services Department officers said they would consider the suggestion if public safety and hygiene were guaranteed.
Environmental Hygiene Deputy Director Annette Lee Lai-yee said a 'one-stop service' for food business licence applications was already in place.
'The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is now responsible for co-ordinating the processing of licence applications. We have case managers to handle each application. Applicants can address any questions to the manager,' Ms Lee said, adding that the department would study whether the procedures could be further simplified.
At present, the shortest time it takes for a restaurant to get a provisional licence is 21 working days, while a provisional licence application for a non-restaurant food business varies from 11 to 31 working days.
In 2003 and last year, it took the department three to six months to grant a full licence.
Subcommittee chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan said it was unacceptable that most food premises at Langham Place could not obtain a licence in four months.
'Most of them have very extensive experience in operating restaurants,' said Mr Cheung, who represents the catering industry. 'They are not new players who don't know who to apply for a licence. But why can't they obtain one?'
Ms Lee said most licence applications came in late and did not have the four necessary certificates, which delayed the issuing of licences.
With 1,510 applications out of 6,045 being withdrawn last year, the department is looking at the feasibility of recovering costs related to withdrawn or abandoned applications that are deemed to have wasted its time.
The licensing issue made headlines two months ago when 186 people fell ill with food poisoning after dining at the Shanghai Kitchen restaurant in Langham Place, Mongkok. A further 10 businesses in the same mall were also operating without licences.