Stroll through Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui and spare a few minutes looking into the busy entrances of some of the most renowned Chinese restaurants on earth. The steamy fragrance of roasting duck and stir-fried pork and garlic wafts richly from the kitchens. Little wonder we glory in the title of culinary capital of Asia, you might think. Then wander down the road, through an alley and along a back lane to the kitchen delivery door. What you might see could not only turn your stomach, but also put you off food for weeks. It could also put you in hospital. A large part of our basic food delivery system is primitive, unhygienic and downright dangerous. In the shadow of glittering skyscrapers, in the financial capital of Asia, we daily see raw food treated with a total disregard for accepted food hygiene standards. In streets clogged with dust, dirt and foul gases, delivery men pedal bikes laden with the carcasses of freshly-plucked chickens. We see slaughtered pigs dumped on pavements, and chunks of raw beef left on the ground next to drains. There were 364 food poisoning cases last year affecting 1,882 people. The Regional Council's 143 district health inspectors prosecuted 508 restaurants in 1997 for offences ranging from selling dirty food to preparing food in the open. The Council promises to 'spare no efforts' to enforce the law, which is more than the Urban Services; they don't even answer basic questions on the issue. Most amazing is public tolerance. Customers flock eagerly to eating places where hygiene laws are being flagrantly breached. The trouble starts when meat leaves slaughterhouses, which are subjected to government supervision and inspection. The chairman of the Hong Kong Chefs' Association, Urs Besmer, calls for a government-run central food dispersal system with abattoirs for cattle, pigs, sheep and other animals, and also provide space for fish, fruit and vegetable inspection. Mr Besmer wants licensed and inspected chiller vans to be used for deliveries. Five-star hotels might discard costly food suspected of contamination, but small restaurants might not. That's perhaps part of the reason there have been 819 cases of food poisoning and dysentery this year. Our public watchdogs seem remarkably unconcerned, the notable exception being Christine Loh, Legislative Councillor and head of the Citizens Party. 'I have seen how awful it is,' she said. 'There are animal entrails over the concrete and meat for consumption being dragged over the ground.' She compiled a detailed report of problems and made recommendations, including: calls for more stringent inspection of restaurants and canteens; requirements for restaurant workers to have basic health tests; improved food delivery systems; and hygiene training for all meat handlers. Government, which aims to launch an empowered Environmental and Food Bureau in 2000, has accepted all the recommendations. What do other Legco members with special responsibilities for health think? Who knows. Michael Ho Mun-ka, head of Legco's Health Panel, and Dr Leong Che-hung, functional constituency representative for the medical profession, both failed to answer questions on the issue. Food professionals, however, want action. Mr Besmer's call for stringent regulations and tough policing is echoed by others in the hospitality industry. There is at least a ray of hope. The Technical College at Chai Wan's Department of Hotel, Catering and Tourism Management includes comprehensive lessons on food handling and hygiene. Principal Lecturer Nigel Davis argues it is essential for all involved in food handling to understand the urgency for cleanliness. The Government has a Healthy Living into the 21st Century campaign. There is a Clean Markets and Food Premises committee on which the Hong Kong Tourist Association brings together Urban Services Department and Health and Welfare Bureau representatives, together with food marketers and restaurateurs. Even so, we need tough new regulations, strictly policed and rigorously enforced, that increase the present $10,000 fines significantly and send offenders to jail. Today, they are liable to three months in prison for such offences but are usually given small fines. The Government has a duty to protect the people, and that includes safeguarding us from being poisoned. There seems little point in holding a back-slapping Food Festival every year to attract tourists if it's not safe for Hong Kong people to eat lunch.