Lawmakers probe food loopholes
Mary Ann Benitez and Anita Lam
Panel to question officials on government action over health scares involving mainland pork and eels
Legislators are urging the government to plug food regulatory loopholes amid health scares over tainted mainland eel products and a pig-borne disease in Sichuan province .
A special meeting of the Legislative Council food safety and environmental hygiene panel will be held today to question officials on government action in both cases.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong's health chief advised the public against eating eels and eel products from the mainland while the government tested them for the cancer-causing chemical, malachite green, after recalls in Guangdong.
The eel scare followed an outbreak of 214 infections in Sichuan of the pig-borne Streptococcus suis bacteria, which has killed 39 people. Nine people in Hong Kong have come down with the disease, four of them confirmed in a month.
Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said yesterday the government may lift a ban on frozen pork from Henan and Shenzhen as early as next week if officials visiting Henan at the weekend confirm there was no outbreak there.
On the eel scare, he admitted the government did not have risk-management measures for all imported processed food.
'The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine decides what to export to Hong Kong, but some processed food to Hong Kong does not go through such arrangements because in the past we did not consider processed food as a high-risk import,' he said.
Dr Chow said mainland authorities would be urged to provide swift notification of food recalls in future.
'We have nearly 400,000 citizens living across the border. If there is any food safety crisis there, we hope people will be provided with accurate information on what they ought to be alert to,' he said.
But Kwok Ka-ki, legislator for the medical sector, said Dr Chow was on dangerous ground regarding an early lifting of the pork ban.
'Can we not send somebody to check the pork before it is imported to Hong Kong?' Dr Kwok asked.
He said the scares had highlighted deficiencies at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
'The FEHD is not doing its job properly. It is like an amateur department,' he said.
Panel chairman Fred Li Wah-ming, of the Democratic Party, said it was time for the government to decide on a mandatory food recall system.
'The eel testing results will come out next week. Once we have proof, then the government has the legal power to confiscate all the eels. But without any scientific proof - only doubts or news from the mainland - the government can do nothing,' he said.
Wellcome suspended sales of live eels at its 30 supermarkets, a day after ParknShop took similar action.
'Since circumstances remain uncertain, we decided to suspend sales of live eels as a precaution,' a Wellcome spokeswoman said.
The government has said Hong Kong is not importing eel products from Fujian, Jiangxi and Anhui , where malachite green has been found.
However, ParknShop, Jusco and Wellcome said they were importing from the affected provinces, and the products had been approved by the mainland.
In the first half of the year, Hong Kong imported 32,165kg of processed and fresh eel products from the mainland, worth about $16.4 million.
This comprised 71 per cent of all such imports, but excluded 160,214kg of live eels from the mainland.