All food must be subject to vigorous safety control

In wake of dioxin-laced hairy crabs, a unified food-safety protocol between Hong Kong and mainland authorities is needed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2016, 1:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2016, 1:54am

Dioxins have no place in the food chain unless safe levels are rigorously enforced. The Centre for Food Safety says they can cause cancer in humans and damage reproductive and immune systems. Their emergence as health hazards during the season for hairy crabs farmed around Lake Tai in eastern Jiangsu (江蘇) province, in circumstances that do not inspire confidence, is cause for alarm.

The results of tests during an inspection in Hong Kong in late September were not released until October 31. They revealed that two out of five hairy crab samples from three importers and two retailers contained excessive levels of dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls, ranging from nearly twice to six times the level regarded as safe in Hong Kong.

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As a result, the authorities urged retailers to stop selling crabs from two mainland farms, although most had already been sold. Health minister Dr Ko Wing-man said last week the authorities had stepped up tests on crabs imported from mainland farms, but they were complicated and would take up to two weeks.

Meanwhile, at least five among 15 named distributors of hairy crabs said they did not source their produce from the two companies managing the farms, with one having begun legal action to defend its reputation and another talking about it. Three have commissioned tests from Hong Kong laboratories.

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This has prompted the centre to begin talks with traders about their links with distributors and mainland farms that may throw light on compliance with import requirements and local regulations. One of the traders was understandably critical of the government for not trying to understand the business – including that not all crabs imported from the two aquaculture companies were sourced in the same way – before suggesting that most crabs in the local market were contaminated.

Mainland food safety standards do not refer to dioxin levels, according to Mao Da, of the Rock Environment and Energy Institute, a mainland independent think tank. A director of one of the two mainland farms has confirmed that crabs exported by his company were not tested for dioxins. Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan has a point in questioning the food safety centre’s role as a gatekeeper for not adopting a unified food-safety protocol between the city and mainland authorities. The hairy crab season may be short, but there is no reason it should not be subject to the same quality controls seen as warranted for other produce imported from the mainland.