Low food safety prosecution rates blamed on unwilling witnesses despite rising complaints

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department says complainants uneager to testify; critics say system is flawed and not enough is being done

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 6:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 1:00pm

Despite the Ombudsman’s criticism of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for failing in its gatekeeper role on food safety earlier this year, latest statistics reveal the prosecution rate of local food vendors remains low amid increasing cases – at 2.6 per cent out of 3,689 complaints in the first eight months of this year.

One of the latest food complaints that led to a conviction this year was on October 4, when convenience store chain Circle K was fined HK$3,500 by the Eastern Court, after a customer found 208 ants in a hot dog sold at one of its outlets in January.

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

The Centre for Food Safety said last year’s prosecution rate was the lowest in three years at 2.87 per cent, compared to 6.85 per cent in 2014 and 3.83 per cent in 2013. The number of complaints handled during the three-year period however hit a record high last year at 5,036, up 9.57 per cent from 4,596 in 2014 and 5,005 in 2013.

The department attributed the low prosecution rate this year to the unwillingness of complainants to testify in court and insufficient evidence.

“After people complain, or post online photos [of bad food], some may feel they already vented their anger, and therefore do not want to spend more time pursuing the case,’’ a department spokeswoman said.

According to the department, a case on August 17 in which a dead rat was found in a box of cookies bought in Sham Shui Po did not go into prosecution even when follow-up examinations confirmed the specimen as a rodent. The reason was because the complainant declined to testify in court.

Rosemary Luo, a 27-year-old Tseung Kwan O resident who filed a food complaint in July, said that even if members of the public decided not to stand in court, the department has not done enough. “The department said they would follow up regardless, but they never contacted me again,’’ Luo said. She had been informed by staff when she made the complaint that they would investigate a bottle of juice which, she believed, was contaminated and caused her to vomit.

Luo claimed that she was asked by department staff to choose one paper to sign before they took the bottle away. “One was to give up my right to be a witness in court, the other was to indicate I understood that I will be summoned as a witness in court,’’ she said.

“But the staff said I’ve already opened the bottle in the morning. They can’t prove if the juice was already bad when I drank it, or if it sat for a whole day and turned bad,” Luo added. “I thought of [pursuing with prosecution], but the form was long enough to make me dizzy. I was rushing a deadline [with work]. So I just signed the easy one.”

Luo gave up her right to be a witness in the case.

Tainted pork a reminder that food safety must be taken seriously

Lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan, who sat on the food safety and environmental hygiene panel during the previous Legislative Council term, believed the department’s handling of food complaints would shift the responsibility of monitoring food vendors to members of the public.

“When department staff arrive on site to speak to the complainant and write a report of what happened, that should be enough for them to take as evidence to court,’’ Wong said.

“If the case can only be prosecuted with a witness, then many people would of course feel irritated by the process and give up.’’

Wong said she expected to review food safety regulations and the standards for vendors in the coming Legco term.

Last January, the Ombudsman criticised the department in a report for “failing in its duty to ensure public safety ’’after following up on two food safety reports handled by the department. The watchdog said the department should have “tried every means” possible to prosecute even if success was uncertain, and that it should not have “given up prosecution so easily”.