Food inspections can only go so far

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am


Mainland food scares have so affected perceptions of safety and quality that there are those among us who opt for alternatives when offered a choice. Given that 90 per cent of what we eat comes from across the border, that can sometimes be costly. An electronic system developed in Guangdong to track the supply chain for vegetables is therefore a welcome tool in helping restore confidence. It is by no means the solution, though; we can only be assured that what we eat is safe when there is proper regulation and oversight of the mainland's farming sector.

Hong Kong already does much to ensure that food is safe. Strict rules and regulations and a monitoring and testing mechanism are in place, although only a tiny percentage can be handled. The system developed by the Guangdong Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, which checks on up to 80 per cent of vegetables sent here, requires farms and processing centres and quarantine officers to enter information into a database that can then be retrieved in Hong Kong. It would potentially be available in supermarkets through use of a bar code scanner or by entering the code number into a computer.

That would seem to give peace of mind, but it is not in itself assurance against contamination. Barely a week goes by without yet another food scare coming to light somewhere on the mainland. With 1.3 billion people to feed and diets reflecting greater affluence, there are great profits to be made from food. Corruption, environmental pollution, a lack of media or official oversight and the temptation to cut corners have time and time again made for a lethal combination.

No one is more aware of the threat than Hong Kong. Guangdong's electronic system is a useful addition to our inspection regime and if possible, it should be expanded across all food groups and to every mainland supplier. But there can be no assurance that what we eat is truly safe until the mainland overhauls the way it produces food.