Wholesalers warn of more action in row over vegetable smuggling
Martin Wong and Peter So
Vegetable wholesalers staged a peaceful slow-drive protest yesterday in a call for increased surveillance to prevent smuggling, but they threatened to take more radical action if their appeal went unanswered for a month.
About 100 trucks took part in the protest, driving slowly from Cheung Sha Wan Wholesale Food Market to government headquarters in Central. About 50 vehicles then circled Central while nearly 150 traders protested outside the headquarters, without triggering traffic jams or inconveniencing pedestrians.
The traders want to hold talks with Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok on ways to trace the origin of all imported vegetables.
Yuen Cheung, president of the Imported Vegetable Wholesale Merchants' Association, said the traders had been trying for months to speak with Dr Chow.
He said they might carry out boycotts and mobilise trucks to block the border control point at Man Kam To if their appeals continued to be ignored.
However, Undersecretary for Food and Health Gabriel Leung yesterday said the existing labelling system for imported vegetables, which was launched in April 2007 and lists the origins of vegetables, had been effective, with '99.9 per cent' of inspected vegetables in the past year meeting food safety standards.
Meanwhile, in response to accusations by traders that the labels could easily be bought by unauthorised farms on the mainland, Professor Leung said mainland authorities had denied that was the case.
Professor Leung said requiring all imported vegetables to be distributed in the city's five wholesale markets, as suggested by the traders, would not 'enhance the protection of vegetable safety and supply'.
He said 30 per cent of imported vegetables had been delivered to retail outlets across the city, which was 'totally legal'.
At present, only live poultry and livestock are required to go through wholesale markets due to public health concerns and the need to prevent diseases that can be transferred from animals to people, such as bird flu and Streptococcus suis.
Professor Leung said any decision to stop issuing more licences to farms on the mainland to authorise them to export vegetables to Hong Kong should be made by mainland authorities.
He said the government had a clear understanding of the traders' demands because several meetings had been held with them over vegetable supplies and food safety.
However, Mr Yuen said the government had failed to verify the origin of imported vegetables.
'I am 99.9 per cent sure that unlicensed vegetable suppliers on the mainland can buy certificates from authorised farms,' Mr Yuen said.
He added that as a result, many unauthorised vegetable suppliers had managed to bypass the usual checks.