Oilfish scandal spurs tougher laws

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 2007, 12:00am

Special Legco meeting told legislation will give government power to order recall of tainted products

Laws enabling the government to order a mandatory recall of tainted food will be introduced when the new legislative year starts in October.

In a special Legco meeting to discuss the oilfish scandal, Carrie Yau Tsang Ka-lai, permanent secretary for health, welfare and food (food and environmental hygiene), said the government shared the public's concern about food safety.

'We consider proposing a new regulation, which will allow us to make an order to prohibit the distribution and sale of a particular food product in the local market if it poses a potential risk to public health,' Mrs Yau said.

The special meeting was the second time in three months that the panel on food safety and environment hygiene convened for a special discussion. The previous one, on November 30, discussed eggs contaminated with Sudan Red dye and fish containing the cancer-causing chemical malachite green.

Mrs Yau admitted the government currently could only advise the trade not to sell a particular food product.

'We want to do it as soon as possible. But then it is rather complicated to enact a law. We have to draft it and consult the public. We think we can come back to Legco for a law in the 2007-08 Legco year.'

The oilfish incident was sparked when 14 ParknShop customers suffered diarrhoea after eating the fish, which was labelled as cod.

Since then, the Centre for Food Safety has received more than 700 inquiries and complaints about oilfish. ParknShop, Wellcome, frozen food shops and restaurants said they had unwittingly sold the oilfish as cod.

Indonesian authorities were investigating how oilfish exported to Hong Kong was mislabelled as cod and they believed a government laboratory may have been asked by a Hong Kong importer to label it as cod.

'We have received the initial report from Indonesia already. We are following it up and we will see if anyone has broken Hong Kong law,' Mrs Yau said.

Lawmakers questioned if ParknShop or the importers would be prosecuted, to which Mrs Yau replied: 'The Department of Justice is now considering the evidence presented by the Centre for Food Safety and customs. We can't comment further now.' Representatives from ParknShop and Wellcome both attended yesterday's meeting. They apologised to the public again and promised to review their systems to prevent it happening again.

Lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming, vice-chairman of the panel, said he was disappointed by the government's work.

'The government has obviously failed to do its job as a gatekeeper. The latest incident is another slap in the face of the Centre for Food Safety. Why is it always so slow to take action whenever there is a food scare?' Mr Li said.