Food chiefs apologise for delay in egg alert

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 December, 2006, 12:00am

Minister pledges to consider tightening controls over imports to boost safety of food

The government's food and health chiefs apologised yesterday for a delay in disclosing the results of its tests on tainted eggs from the mainland for the cancer-causing dye Sudan Red.

This came as authorities in Shunde - which supplies much of Hong Kong's freshwater fish - said some fish farms were ready to resume exports after a two-day halt. Officials said they had taken a number of samples which were all cleared of the banned chemical malachite green.

'Our fish is qualified to be exported to Hong Kong any minute,' a Shunde Agriculture Bureau spokesman said. 'But I do not know when it will be shipped and how much it will be. Customs is responsible for this.'

Speaking at a Legislative Council panel meeting, director of food and environmental hygiene Eddy Chan Yuk-tak and Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok made the apologies and promised to consider stepping up regulation of egg and fish imports by legislation.

Last week, Dr Chow said there were no tainted eggs, only to be corrected by his own officials hours later saying tainted samples had been found several days before.

All 10 lawmakers on the food safety and environmental hygiene panel passed a motion condemning the department for its delayed disclosure about the tainted eggs.

Dr Chow said the government would consider a law to require egg importers to register with the Centre for Food Safety and only permit eggs with health certificates. 'If there is any problem, we can then trace the origin more efficiently.'

It might punish importers who buy eggs through illegal channels and seize the eggs. The government expected to submit draft legislation within one or two months. Similar legislation on live fish and imports of other aquatic products is also being considered.

Draft legislation may be available between February and April.

Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food (Food and Environmental Hygiene) Carrie Yau Tsang Ka-lai also said the State General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine would take steps to tighten the control of eggs supplied to Hong Kong.

The measures would include a listing regime for egg farms, testing for Sudan dyes in eggs and egg products before export, stricter controls on batch numbers and identification of exported eggs, health certificates and higher penalties against illegal operations.

She insisted that the Hong Kong government had maintained a firm stance on food safety issues when discussing imports with mainland officials.

But she said the government might not always inform the public when problem food was found.

'If we can immediately take measures with the mainland officials to solve the problem, we might not announce it to the public to prevent unnecessary scares.'

Young Kam-yin, chief executive of Fung Kwai Tong Egg Merchants Association, welcomed a registration system.

He said egg sales had recovered a little over the past few days but were still about 20 per cent down on normal.

But Zheng Shining , a member of the Guangdong Fresh and Frozen Products Imports and Exports Association, said the association had not told him to resume exports to Hong Kong.

About 10,000 tonnes of fish are sent from Shunde to Hong Kong and Macau annually.