Review of food safety needed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 5:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 9:22am

Food safety in Hong Kong may not be among the world's best. The frightening list of food scares across the border makes us even more vulnerable. The latest controversy involving rotten meat repackaged at a Shanghai food factory is a case in point. Our heavy reliance on mainland food supplies means we can never be safe. The belated confirmation that McDonald's in Hong Kong sourced products from the plant has understandably rung the alarm bell. The latest scandal has not just dealt a heavy blow to business image and reputation, but also highlights inadequacies in our checks and monitoring. A review of our food safety regime is necessary.

There can be no disputing that the fast-food giant has done a terrible job in terms of the timeliness and accuracy of its public statements. The company initially assured the public it had not used any products from the Shanghai plant, but corrected itself after food safety officials launched a probe. It caused further outrage by accusing the government of jumping the gun to break the damaging news unilaterally. Days later, the managing director offered to meet the media amid mounting public pressure. But she only read out a brief statement of apology for the cameras and refused to take questions. If her four-minute appearance was meant for damage control, it only raised further questions and was a public relations disaster.

The damage is as much to McDonald's as to our food safety regime. It is disappointing that information released by the Centre for Food Safety was also inconsistent. The public was first told that there was no record of frozen meat imported from the Shanghai factory this year. But as the centre dug deeper into its records, it found that there were imports in 2013. Adding to the confusion, the health chief confirmed that cooked meat from the factory had been imported early this year, but the authority had no record of this because, unlike fresh produce, imports of cooked meat do not require prior consent.

Under no circumstances should public health be compromised. Raw or cooked, food products have to be safe to eat. Food safety is primarily the responsibility of those involved in the supply chain. The government, too, has an important gate-keeping role to play. The latest controversy has exposed individual malpractice and inadequacies in the food safety system. If any law is found to have been broken, enforcement and punishment should follow. Officials should also consider tightening the requirements covering cooked meat.