Food and agriculture

Hong Kong’s food safety checks for imported fruits and greens ‘too lax’, governance watchdog says

Ombudsman cites ‘hasty’ inspection of fruits and vegetables entering city, slow laboratory tests and lenient rules on lead residue in leafy greens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 10:57pm

Food safety checks for imported fruits and vegetables are too slack, with ‘hasty’ or no inspection of items at checkpoints, slow laboratory test results and lax rules on lead residue in leafy greens, according to the city’s governance watchdog.

The Office of the Ombudsman said on Monday that these loopholes in gatekeeping had raised the risks of unsafe produce entering the city’s markets, potentially jeopardising the health of residents.

“The situation is undesirable,” Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said, as she described the results of her office’s most recent investigation into an issue of public interest.

The Office of the Ombudsman, set up in 1989, carries out regular investigations into public administration and complaints against government departments and officers.

Its reports, including this latest study on safety control for imported fruits and vegetables, are available on its website.

The Centre for Food Safety under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is in charge of sampling the items when they arrive by land, sea and air. Its officers look out for residue of specific pesticides and heavy metals known to affect health, and zoom in on produce most likely to be tainted with such substances.

There can be no compromise on food safety

The Office of the Ombudsman said its investigation focused on sampling procedures of produce at the checkpoints.

At the land checkpoint in Man Kam To in the New Territories, produce sampling from lorries coming from the mainland was done at “a very hasty pace”. Workers would only take out crates near the doors for checking, while those stored deeper inside the lorries could “easily evade inspection”, the watchdog pointed out.

Worse yet, even though 80 per cent of imported fruits and vegetables are transported by sea, no routine checks were conducted at the Kwai Chung checkpoint or importers’ warehouses, unless the department had received prior information on safety scares.

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Instead, it relied on general sampling of all produce, including items brought in by land and air, at wholesale and retail points.

“The system of sampling checks on [produce] imported by sea is clearly rather lax,” the watchdog’s report read. “Most of the fruits and vegetables imported by sea would have already entered the market for public consumption before having undergone any inspection.”

However, “the saving grace” was that the department had recently started a trial scheme to sample produce imported by sea at importers’ warehouses. It should collect more fruit samples at the Man Kam To checkpoint and also give its officers better instructions on collecting samples, the watchdog said.

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The watchdog also highlighted the slow pace of laboratory tests on food samples. It usually took 19 working days from the time a sample was sent to the government laboratory to when results were released. If there were regional food scares or reports of Hong Kong residents falling ill from specific produce, then the tests could be ready in two days.

The report urged the department to speed up food testing by devoting more resources to the process.

Finally, the watchdog criticised current lenient regulations on harmful residue in commonly consumed vegetables.

Till this day, the government has no ability, without the help of mainland authorities, to go to mainland farms supplying Hong Kong to check the vegetables or the water for problems. This is ridiculous.
Dr Kwok Ka-ki, deputy chair of the Legco’s food safety panel

First, not all products were covered under guidelines for acceptable levels of pesticides and metallic contaminants. For instance, there were no such guidelines for lotus roots and bean sprouts, which feature in Chinese cooking. This should change, said the watchdog.

Second, lead content guidelines were 20 times more lax than standards established by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Health Organisation, known as Codex Alimentarius. The code sets the maximum limit of lead in leafy greens at 0.3mg per kg, but under Hong Kong law, the limit is 6mg per kg.

The report noted: “The saving grace is that the government has recently proposed legislative amendments in accordance with Codex’s standards. Hopefully, there will be more stringent regulation of the content of ‘lead’ in leafy vegetables.”

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Dr Kwok Ka-ki, deputy chair of the Legislative Council’s food safety panel, urged the government to establish a labelling system that would allow consumers and officials to trace where food products came from, as this would be crucial if problems were to arise.

“Till this day, the government has no ability, without help of mainland authorities, to go to mainland farms supplying Hong Kong to check the vegetables or the water for problems.

“This is ridiculous,” Kwok said.

The Ombudsman said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department generally agreed with its recommendations.

The Ombudsman wants the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to:

1) Collect more fruit samples at Man Kam To for testing

2) Instruct officers how to properly sample produce transported by lorries

3) Collect more samples at importers’ warehouses

4) Focus more on sea imports during sampling at wholesale and retail points

5) Speed up laboratory testing

6) Include lotus roots and bean sprouts in food safety guidelines

7) Adopt international standards for acceptable lead content in produce