Food safety cannot be taken for granted

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2015, 4:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2015, 4:20am

Food scares in Hong Kong are, thankfully, not a common occurrence. But with the population consuming 913 tonnes of rice, 2,270 tonnes of vegetables and copious amounts of meat every day, most of which is imported from elsewhere, the importance of food safety and monitoring cannot be overstated. While occasional incidents do shake public confidence from time to time, they help identify inadequacies in our surveillance mechanism and make improvements. What makes it to our dining table is, by and large, safe for consumption.

The suggestion by a lawmaker of a possible loophole for food arriving by sea is therefore discomforting. At present, food imported via Kwai Chung container terminal does not go through routine checks at the docks, as the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has no food inspection checkpoint there. Examination is done only when the food is moved to storage areas by importers, giving rise to delays and possible abuse, according to the lawmaker.

Whether that constitutes a serious loophole in our food surveillance remains to be seen. But there was a case in January where boxes of Japanese carrots from nuclear contaminated prefectures were found to have slipped through the mechanism. The food safety authority later said the produce had passed radioactivity tests.

Food arriving by air and cross-border land transport is currently subject to random inspections. Of the 240,000 samples taken for radioactive checks in the wake of the Japanese earthquake in 2011, only three were found to have exceeded the permitted levels. The system appears to be working well.

But as the January case showed, checks on sea imports are not as stringent. Although the amount of perishable produce arriving by sea is considerably lower than that by air and land, food safety cannot be taken for granted. It is good to hear that the department is aware of the problem and will study ways to step up inspection of food imported by sea.