Do you know what you're eating?
Whenever I am in the United States, I go shopping at a Chinese grocery store. All the familiar Hong Kong brands of instant noodles, chilli sauce and soy drink are there, just like at home. There is one difference, however. In America, all these products have detailed nutrition labelling. It is quite an eye-opener. When you know how much fat and sugar there are in some prepackaged foods, you will probably ask yourself how often you eat them and whether you should cut down.
Here in Hong Kong, the government is getting ready to make nutrition labelling compulsory. The Legislative Council should vote on the new laws next year. After a two-year grace period, producers of foods that make nutrition-related claims (like 'low fat') will have to disclose products' energy levels, plus protein, carbohydrate, total fat, saturated fat and sodium content. Two years after that, all prepackaged foods will have to display this information, as well as the amount of cholesterol, sugars, dietary fibre and calcium.
Why do we have to wait five years for a comprehensive labelling system? It is partly for practical reasons. Laboratory testing procedures need to be drawn up, and the industry will need to change its packaging. But, as you might guess, it is also because food manufacturers and retailers have resisted this measure, and a gradual approach is the result.
The interest groups do have a point. Manufacturers will have to pay for testing and new labels (although those that export to the US are already doing that). And it might not be economically viable to import some niche products under the new regulations.
A detailed study of the pros and cons showed that, in theory, up to 191 small firms could go out of business. But it also showed increases in productivity, and better health among the population as a whole. The savings outnumber the costs five times or more. This is because food labelling is expected to change consumers' behaviour.
While the food lobby is still grumbling, the health-care professionals and nutrition experts are also unhappy. They do not like the foot-dragging, and they would like to see information on other nutrients, like potassium, vitamins, iron, and so on.
While I prefer to see less rather than more business regulation, I feel very strongly that public health has to come first. Hong Kong today is richer than at any time in its history, yet many of us - especially our children - have worse diets than when we were a developing economy.
If people do not mind eating unhealthy food, that is fine. It is their choice. But the important thing is that they are able to make an informed decision about how healthy or unhealthy different foods are. In most cases, competition and market forces will give producers incentives to give customers what they want, including product information. But with details about nutrition (as with health warnings on tobacco), it does not work that way. So we need a compulsory labelling system.
Perhaps Hong Kong's example will also be noticed by the millions of mainland visitors who come here to shop every year. Because of the fake goods and other problems across the border, mainlanders see Hong Kong-packaged foods as superior. Labelling could increase their confidence in our local stores.
More important, it could raise mainland people's awareness about what they are eating. As in Hong Kong in the past, mainland consumers are in danger of eating less and less healthily as they become more prosperous. Nutrition labels in Hong Kong could set an example on both sides of the border, and help millions of people to choose healthier foods.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency