Legal cap mulled on cooking oil toxin Benzopyrene

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 3:30am

The city may set a legal limit for a cancer-causing chemical found recently in cooking oil sold by local suppliers, the health minister says.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man told legislators yesterday that the government would consult an expert committee this month on whether to set legally binding safety standards.

It will consider a proposal to recall cooking oil found with more than 10 micrograms of Benzopyrene per kg.

Last month, the Centre for Food Safety found the carcinogen Benzopyrene in oil samples at levels higher than the safety limit set by the European Union of two micrograms per kilogram and even exceeding the mainland limit of 10 micrograms.

The centre's checks followed a media exposé which revealed some cooking oil sold to local restaurants had exceeded the limit.

There is no international safety limit on Benzopyrene in food under the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a UN body for protecting public health.

"The difficulty in setting a level for Benzopyrene is what level [would be] internationally recognised?" asked Dr Philip Ho Yuk-yin, consultant for the centre. "If the level is not set properly, other trading countries can complain to the World Trade Organisation. We need to be careful."

Benzopyrene is an environmental contaminant, which exists in the air and sea sediment.

It can be produced in food manufacturing processes, such as heating oil under high a temperature, making it very hard to eliminate it in food. Consuming Benzopyrene, regardless of the amount, poses a cancer risk.

The Legislative Council's food safety and environmental hygiene panel held a special meeting yesterday in the light of media reports about a suspected unlicensed oil plant supplying substandard cooking oil to restaurants.

Legislators passed a motion to call for an amendment of the law to monitor levels of the chemical.

They questioned why Hong Kong had not already set a limit, when the mainland had one.

Some asked for more transparency in the government's food testing, and asked why media organisations had identified problematic oil samples, while the government had failed to make such findings in its routine tests.

Legislators also called for an end to exempting cooking oil packaging companies from the need for a food business licence.

Ko said he would look into this issue, but noted the recent cases of substandard oil might not be related to the current policy.