Fully 60 per cent of packaged foods on shop shelves fail to comply with the labelling law, the Audit Commission said yesterday in a report criticising a far rosier estimate from the Centre for Food Safety.
Earlier this year the centre reported that almost 100 per cent of the foods it surveyed met the law's requirements for listing nutrients.
The Audit Commission criticised the centre for taking most of its test samples from large chain supermarkets rather than small food outlets. As a result, the centre's finding of almost 100 per cent compliance with the law might be hugely inflated, it said.
Hong Kong adopted compulsory nutrition labelling for packaged foods in July last year, requiring the listing of protein, carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, sodium, sugars and energy.
In its report on the first year under the new law, the centre found the overall compliance rate was 99.3 per cent. Of 16,245 food labels, only 111 were found without a nutrition listing or made inappropriate nutrition claims.
But the Audit Commission engaged a local university to provide accredited laboratory services for its test of packages, and it found 42 of the 70 samples tested were suspected of being non-compliant.
'The Audit [Commission] found that the Centre for Food Safety's compliance tests ... were subject to limitations,' the report read. The centre selected most of its food samples from large chain supermarkets, where the risk of non-compliance was generally low, it said.
It advised the centre to collect more samples from food outlets like ethnic shops, snack shops and health shops.
While the labelling law does not specify legibility requirements, the commission's report noted that some labels are unreadable because the type is too small or there is not enough contrast with the background.
'[The] Audit [Commission] has recommended that the director of food and environmental hygiene should properly address the legibility issue for the effective implementation of the nutrition labelling scheme,' the report said.
In another report, on nutrition labelling in infant and special dietary foods, the commission found some infant and follow-up formulas did not strictly follow the international Codex Alimentarius body of standards and guidelines.
For example, the codex prohibits the use of infants' pictures on the container labels. Yet two formulas used such pictures.
'To safeguard public health, [the] Audit [Commission] considers that the administration needs to critically consider whether it is in the public interest for the government to continue relying on the trade to comply with the Codex standards and guidelines at their discretion,' the report said.
It recommended extending the food labelling law to cover infant foods.
The secretary for food and health, the director of food and environmental hygiene and director of health all said they agreed with the audit recommendations.
The number of respondents, out of 511, who could name all eight nutrition categories labels must list, in a January survey by the University of Hong Kong