Hong Kong mulls food safety law after scare caused by toxic chemicals in hairy crabs

City may follow lead of Europe and Taiwan as a result of fears raised by tainted samples found in the seasonal delicacy last year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 9:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 10:52pm

Hong Kong is considering following the lead of Europe and Taiwan by imposing safety limits for dioxins in hairy crabs after a health scare last year in which excessive levels of the cancer-linked chemical were found in samples.

The proposal, contained in a Food and Health Bureau document, is to be tabled for discussion at next Tuesday’s Legislative Council panel meeting on food safety and environmental hygiene.

There were no concrete details in the document, but the authorities said they would “keep in view the monitoring and regulatory arrangements and measures over dioxins … in food in the international arena”.

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The meeting will focus on levels of dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs).

Panel members and crab traders largely welcomed the move.

Last November the Centre for Food Safety found excessive dioxins and DL-PCBs in two of five hairy crab samples it tested from two farms in mainland China.

Both dioxins and DL-PCBs have similar toxic effects and can be produced naturally or as by-products from industrial activity. They can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and can cause cancer.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan, chairwoman of the food safety panel, welcomed the government move. “It has been long-overdue. The most important thing is that we can have a clear legal limit. The government should also let the mainland authorities and traders know our standards.”

The panel’s deputy chairman, Lau Kwok-fan, said: “I believe retailers and importers would welcome it. At least there will be a clearer statutory standard for all people, including mainland farms and exporters, to follow.”

Stephen Chu, director of importer Wah Kee Wing Cheong Ho, said regulation was a “step in the right direction” as long as it was clear and reasonable. But he said the government would have to discuss details with the industry.

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The Codex Alimentarius Commission – an international agency on food safety standards – has not recommended any standards on dioxins and DL-PCBs in foods and neither has Hong Kong.

The European Union and Taiwan, however, have set statutory maximum levels for dioxins and DL-PCBs in hairy crabs at 6.5 picograms per gram, which Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety has adopted as an “action level”.

One sample in November had 40.3 picograms, prompting the centre to apply the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, suspending the import and sale of hairy crabs in Hong Kong.

Traders accused the centre of failing to consult them and argued that not all hairy crabs on sale were from the two mainland farms linked to the contamination.

Between 2013 and 2016, the centre took about 265 food samples, including 22 hairy crabs, for testing of dioxins and DL-PCBs. Apart from the three crab samples taken in 2016, the results were satisfactory.