Tsang feasts as fish traders fume

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am

Wholesalers announce boycott amid sales slump and import curbs; chief tucks in to restore trust

Hong Kong's fish traders will stop taking freshwater fish from the mainland and local fish farms tomorrow to put pressure on the government to resolve the fish crisis.

As they announced the boycott, which will last at least until Wednesday, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen sought very publicly to restore confidence in the safety of eating fish.

Mr Tsang, top officials including Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan, Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, and some lawmakers sat down for a 12-dish freshwater fish lunch in Wan Chai, but were taking no chances with their health.

The Shun Tak River Fish and Hotpot Restaurant, where Mr Tsang's party dined, served only Hong Kong-raised freshwater fish - not any imported varieties, some of which have been found by government tests to contain the cancer-causing fungicide malachite green, triggering a health alarm and urgent steps to improve the safety of imports.

'We are all out of freshwater fish. The chief executive and his gang ate the last few,' said Ms Wong, captain at the restaurant.

Fish traders said markets would remain open tomorrow, but there would be no new freshwater stocks, local or imported.

Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Freshwater Fish Wholesale Association chairman Tommy Hui Hon-man said restocking was being suspended because members were unhappy with the government's sudden decision last week to limit the amount of freshwater fish coming into Hong Kong while the safety measures are implemented.

He accused officials of underestimating the impact their health warnings would have on public confidence in freshwater fish - despite the fact that to suffer any ill effects a person would need to eat an enormous amount of contaminated fish to suffer harm. A government paper submitted to the Legislative Council last week said that, based on the mean level of the chemical detected in samples, someone would have to eat 290kg of fish a day to suffer harm.

'This has been an incredible knock to our industry. We hope to send a signal [to the government] that they need to hurry up in dealing with the situation,' Mr Hui said.

The fishmongers said they would only back away from the halt on imports if the government guaranteed supplies would return to the same level as before restrictions came in.

He said the flow of freshwater fish from the mainland had fallen to one-sixth the normal volume and sales had slowed to a trickle.

Government chemists yesterday tested 19 samples of imported freshwater fish and found two tested positive for malachite green - whose primary use is as an industrial dye.

A grass carp contained 2 micrograms per kilogram of the chemical and a big head fish 2.3 micrograms per kilogram. The results bring the number of samples to have testing positive for malachite green to 15, from 85 tested since August 20.

Officials began testing for the chemical after the recall of eels from Jiangxi , Fujian and Anhui provinces because they contained malachite green.

The discovery of malachite green in both eels and freshwater fish have prompted officials to limit supplies to those from farms accredited by mainland authorities and approved by Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Health Department.

Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Gregory Leung Wing-lup is expected to inspect Guangdong fish farms tomorrow.

Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok urged the industry to remain calm and consider the interests of the public.

The Legislative Council's panel on food safety and environmental hygiene will meet officials on Tuesday to discuss the regulation of freshwater fish.