City Weekend

‘The more stringent the law, the more safe the food’: the struggle for Hong Kong food safety standards

In the wake of pork contamination scare, industry and government representatives say more can be done, including using digital tracking system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 August, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 August, 2016, 10:33am

Supply chain and industry experts have called on the government to beef up and modernise Hong Kong’s food import standards to ensure that what ends up on our plates is safe.

A digital tracking system, which would require all products to have a registered electronic bar code, would significantly improve food safety in a city where 95 per cent of food is imported, according to Anna Lin, chief executive of the Hong Kong branch of global supply chain standards organisation GS1,

Lin said it was important for the city to improve the traceability of products to limit food poisoning outbreaks when they do occur.

She said despite GS1 making recommendations to the government two years ago on the issue, bar-code registration was yet to be made compulsory, unlike on the mainland.

“The challenge is that in Hong Kong, most of the produce is imported,” she said.

We need to know what it is made of and what it claims to be. This end-to-end visibility is getting increasingly important. I certainly think it could be improved

“Where a lot of people talk about food safety and testing, for our part, food traceability is a crucial component. Because we find food is made up of many different ingredients from all over the world.

“We need to know what it is made of and what it claims to be. This end-to-end visibility is getting increasingly important. I certainly think it could be improved. From a government point of view, they have to balance between overly regulating and stifling business.”

A spokeswoman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said while Hong Kong already had a comprehensive food surveillance and traceability system in place, an electronic bar-code system could better enhance the supply chain industry.

“The government welcomes industry-driven and market-driven initiatives, which complement and are conducive to enhancing our food control system,” she said.

Hong Kong’s food safety practices came in for scrutiny earlier this month when 3,500kg of contaminated mainland pork was allowed into the market and later had to be destroyed.

While this was an extraordinary incident, there are regular recalls and warnings from the Centre for Food Safety when food standards fall short.

Just this week, Taiwanese brand Chun Cui He’s Just Drink - Milk Tea was removed from 7-Eleven Stores across the city because they contained an unapproved food additive.

Despite the recent incidents, Lin remained confident about the city’s checking processes for food imports.

She said there was generally a good standard of food safety in Hong Kong, but greater regulation of e-commerce was needed.

Following a food poisoning outbreak last year related to Taiwanese sandwiches, the government pledged to step up the regulation of online food purchasing.

Operators selling raw food products such as meat, sashimi, sushi and oysters were required to apply for new permits to ensure their food had been stored at the correct temperature and not tampered with during transportation.

“Hong Kong’s food safety is quite alright,” Lin said. “Although the law may not be as stringent as in other countries, the media, including social media, is a very effective watchdog. We do not want to stifle business. It is constantly being self-regulated here by the public.”

Measuring Hong Kong’s food security against the rest of the world is difficult, with the city not included on the Global Food Security Index because it is not a country.

China, however, was ranked 42nd out of 113 countries this year, ahead of Turkey, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“China is not bad in terms of the law,” Lin said. “But I would not necessarily say that the more stringent the law, the more safe the food. It is how it is being implemented.”

Hong Kong adheres to standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food-standard-setting authority established in 1963 by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The Centre for Food Safety also works with the International Food Safety Authorities Network and the European Union’s rapid alert system for food and feed to maintain food safety standards.

The Centre for Food Safety uses microbiological analysis, radiation level analysis and chemical analysis when testing food, according to a 2014 food safety report.

It is an inherent problem in Hong Kong. You cannot collect everything. It is a comparison between the risk and the benefit.

With 95 per cent of Hong Kong’s food imported, Dr Leung Ka-sing, associate director in the Food Safety and Technology Research Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the city faced greater difficulty in ensuring food safety and that testing every product would be “impossible”.

Despite the hurdles, he said the Centre for Food Safety’s food surveillance programme for last year had seen impressive results, achieving an overall satisfaction rate of 99.7 per cent.

“For other countries, imported food is not a major part of their supply,” he said. “The samples are being done, but there is no time to check them all. It is an inherent problem in Hong Kong. You cannot collect everything. It is a comparison between the risk and the benefit.”

Keeping Hong Kong’s food safe is a demanding process, requiring a great deal of manpower and effort.

The government tests about nine food samples for every 1,000 people in Hong Kong, according to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s 2015 report. Meanwhile, it received more than 5,000 complaints relating to food hygiene concerns and carried out more than 200,000 inspections of just under 26,000 licensed food premises last year. Of the thousands of inspections, more than 2,300 resulted in prosecutions, which resulted in 191 licence suspensions and 11 cancellations.

But following the report, a spokesman for the department said more needed to be done, and pledged to bolster efforts.

He said the authority would “adjust its food surveillance programmes and strengthen relevant testing with regard to local and overseas food incidents”.

But with the bulk of food imports, about 50 per cent, arriving from the mainland, Dr Leung suggested the only way to improve food safety standards was to have better collaboration with mainland food producers.

In the end, however, all the testing and regulation in the world will not necessarily ensure the quality of the food on your plate.

Stevie Go, chief organiser of Meat Free Hong Kong, said money remained a hugely influential factor in how safe our food is.

He said the investment of individual countries in food safety procedures, as well as the wealth of the consumer, continued to dictate the safety of what we consume.

“A large amount of it comes down to economics,” he said. “From the very beginning of the food supply to when it gets to your plate.”