Our city must remain vigilant on food safety

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 January, 2011, 12:00am

Of all the places to issue an alert over food safety, Germany is surely the least expected. Yet the country's reputation for having the best standards has not prevented high levels of the carcinogen dioxin from being found in eggs. Hong Kong has joined a flurry of governments halting poultry products from Germany, pending tests. There is no more timely reminder of our need for stringent oversight of produce imports - especially given the prominence of mainland goods in our diet.

Food scares are rare in Germany; on the mainland, barely a week goes by without a fresh one. They are so commonplace that there is a tendency for eyes to glaze over at the mere mention of the latest scandal. In the past month alone, there have been reports of rice noodles made with rotten grain and potentially cancer-causing additives, fake tofu, bleached mushrooms, dyed oranges and tainted red wine. In the background hangs the spectre of yet more melamine-laden milk products being uncovered.

A recent national survey found that almost 70 per cent of people were not confident about the safety of the country's food supply. In Hong Kong, where faith in government inspections is high, there is a tendency to choose mainland food as a much less-desired alternative. It is not surprising given that at, one time or another, the full spectrum of meat, fish and vegetables have been the focus of scares. With 90 per cent of produce coming from across the border, it is understandable that imports are booming.

We naturally assume that food from developed nations is safe. It is a shock to find otherwise. That is especially so with Germany, a key member of the European Union, whose standards we pay close attention to when formulating our rules and laws. When the strict regime of requirements and inspections falters, there is cause to wonder whether any supply can be trusted.

Truth be told, no system is perfect. The possibility of accidents and unscrupulous producers in a world where demands are high is ever-present. That means that inspections and tests have to be frequent and mechanisms in place to prevent repeats. German authorities were quick to identify a problem, shut down the source and are now investigating the company from which animal feed contaminated with industrial oil is believed to have come. They are talking about tougher monitoring, stricter regulations and penalties.

We also expect this on the mainland, but it is not always so - and the result is a lack of trust in what we buy, and lives are put at risk. The six children who died and 300,000 others sickened by tainted milk in 2008 amply proved that. Corruption, mismanagement and greed mean the possibility of a recurrence remains, despite top-level pledges of reform.

The absence of transparency in the case of Zhao Lianhai , the father of one of the victims, who was jailed for campaigning for compensation for parents, casts doubt on the genuine will for change. Yet reform is essential. Food regulations are in the hands of 10 government departments, creating a bureaucratic mess and raising the chances of graft. That makes for limited regulation of farmers in an environment where profits speak loudly. Illegal additives and harmful chemicals can easily make their way into the food chain. Mainland lawmakers are considering raising the penalties for violators. It is a start, but only a small one. An overhaul of a creaky system, centred on transparency and getting tough with graft, is the best way forward. Until there is a marked improvement, Hong Kong cannot spare any expense with monitoring.