Dedicated food safety centre proposed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am

A dedicated centre for food safety could be set up next year to improve Hong Kong's response to food scares and enhance monitoring and controls, the government said yesterday.

'We are actively considering the establishment of a centre for food safety,' said the Deputy Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Eddy Chan Yuk-tak.

The centre would be structured along the lines of the year-old Centre for Health Protection, formed within the Department of Health in the aftermath of the Sars outbreak in 2003. Details would be set out in a paper to be presented to legislators later this year, with Mr Chan saying its formation would depend on how quickly legislators acted on their plan.

The Centre for Health Protection, which began operating on June 1 last year, was set up on the recommendation of the Sars Expert Committee to improve the government's response to infectious diseases.

Mr Chan said: 'What we have in mind is to ... pool expertise from different departments to look at food safety issues. This would involve [doctors] from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and also perhaps veterinary officers from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department to see how different sectors of expertise can be grouped together as an independent agency.'

The announcement came a day after legislator for the medical sector Kwok Ka-ki criticised the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department as an 'amateur department'.

Dr Kwok said repeated food scares had shown up structural deficiencies in the department, which was set up after the handover following repeated outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu.

The idea of forming a separate agency to handle food safety came up recently during one of the almost-daily meetings of an interdepartmental taskforce on the pig-borne disease Streptococcus suis, chaired by Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok.

The plan is part of a comprehensive review being undertaken by the bureau in response to recent food scares.

The review will include enhancing: the system for mutual notification by Hong Kong and mainland authorities of disease outbreaks and health hazards; monitoring and enforcement; inspection and food sampling; and laboratory testing work.

Whether the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will spin off its food surveillance division, currently headed by an assistant director, is unclear.

Tam Yiu-chung, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said sufficient manpower should be deployed to the planned food centre.

Legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing of The Frontier asked about the budget for the new centre, but the government officials said such details still had to be worked out.