Long touted as a centre of culinary diversity and excellence, Hong Kong's reputation for food standards has been built on a rich tradition of Chinese cooking melded with the influence of other Asian and western cuisines. But whereas 'Asia's world city' prides itself on being a gourmet's paradise, there has been growing concern about the safety of dishes set before us. A recent series of scares surrounding the city's food quality has further dented public confidence in the food supply chain, prompting Centre for Food Safety (CFS) controller Mak Sin-ping to last month go into damage-control mode. Her agency again found itself grappling with a series of chemical contaminations in food. After a number of reports starting in December involving tainted mainland fish, eels and eggs, it didn't help when at least 14 ParknShop customers suffered diarrhoea after eating oilfish, which had been labelled as cod. As legislators called for more government control, Dr Mak played down the issue, saying people should not be overly concerned about minute amounts of contaminants, despite the scare involving potentially cancer-causing chemicals. Rising public concern wasn't helped by Greenpeace test results that indicated five tangerine and strawberry samples taken from mainland stocks imported last month showed pesticide residues. Two of them contained locally banned pesticides such as metham-idophos and DDT But the bigger worry should be about food poisoning outbreaks, said the head of the CFS, which is tasked with ensuring that what we eat is 'safe, wholesome and fit for human consumption'. 'If you talk about chemical contaminants as far as public health and food safety is concerned, it is relatively low-risk. So people are reacting disproportionately to chemicals found in food,' Dr Mak said on the sidelines of the International Symposium on Food Safety held in Hong Kong last month. She said the real threat was from microbiological hazards, including viral, bacterial and parasitic infections. 'When some food exceeds some chemical standards it does not mean it is toxic,' Dr Mak said. 'If you find Sudan red dye in one or two eggs and you had eaten it, it does not mean you get cancer. We are talking about regular exposure to that same chemical for a long time. Food poisoning is different because you really get ill and if it's acute you can die. For example, if you talk about E coli 017 [bacteria] it can kill the very young and very old.' But Dr Mak admitted it would be 'very difficult to change public perception' on the risks of food hazards. Organised by the CFS and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, last month's conference gave Dr Mak the chance to present her vision of food safety and the challenges faced by the centre. Set up in May last year with 430 staff, the organisation's challenges include controlling food standards at the source, striking a balance between regulation and maintaining free ports, communicating risks and hazards to the public and food-related industries, and maintaining Hong Kong's status as a 'gourmet's paradise'. To ensure food safety, Dr Mak said the centre had adopted a risk analysis framework encompassing risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. Hong Kong is sensitive to safety scares as it imports about 95 per cent of its food. The latest government figures show more than 300,000 tonnes of rice, 169,000 tonnes of pork, 17 million poultry and 1.7 billion eggs were imported in 2005. The city also relies on its status as a free port, with large volumes and varieties of food being imported. Dr Mak's assertion that the public health risk of spoiled food is more serious than cancer-causing substances has been severely tested over the past few weeks, as food poisoning outbreaks grabbed newspaper headlines ahead of the Lunar New Year festivities. Apple Daily went to town with its report on Monday that five members of a family of 12 complained of 'food-poisoning' symptoms after eating poon choi at a Maxim's MX fast-food restaurant in North Point on Lunar New Year's Eve. One of the five was admitted to United Christian Hospital, the newspaper reported. But the Hospital Authority denied that the man involved had suffered food poisoning. A second man admitted on the same day at United Christian who had eaten poon choi at another Maxim's MX branch, was also not a food poisoning case, an authority spokeswoman said. In reply to questions filed by the South China Morning Post, Maxim's MX said it was deeply concerned about what it called an 'isolated incident of customers feeling unwell after eating Maxim's MX poon choi'. A spokeswoman said the restaurant chain had taken 'immediate action' to follow up on the case. 'The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department inspected the outlet at North Point today [Monday] and was satisfied with the source of food and handling procedures,' Maxim's Group said in a statement. 'Our group has always put food quality as priority. Complimentary food thermometer and reheating tips are provided with any purchase of the Maxim's MX poon choi reminding customers to properly reheat the food before consumption,' the company said. The Maxim's incident came weeks after the CFS said it had conducted chemical and virus tests on 184 Lunar New Year food samples from local markets. All samples met hygiene standards, except for a poon choi manufacturer in Sheung Shui, and samples of dried bamboo fungus from a supplier in Wan Chai. Amid the debate over food safety in Hong Kong, the fact remains that many diarrhoea and gastroenteritis cases go unreported as individuals deal with them without help from their doctors. Last year, there were 265 noroviral outbreaks, involving at least 2,783 people, reported to the Centre for Health Protection's surveillance system. Of these, 53 were hospital outbreaks affecting 431 people in 21 hospitals. So far this year, two norovirus outbreaks in two retirement homes in Yuen Long and two food poisoning incidents in a Sai Kung restaurant and a Happy Valley club have been reported by the centre. The four outbreaks involved a total of 98 people. Also, Princess Margaret, Caritas, Tuen Mun, Tung Wah Eastern, Haven of Hope and Castle Peak hospitals have experienced norovirus or diarrhoea outbreaks affecting 40 patients and staff this year. Research carried out overseas shows that about half of all norovirus infections are food-borne, according to the CFS website. Locally, raw oysters are the food most commonly blamed for food-borne norovirus outbreaks. A 2003 Chinese University study showed that Hong Kong Chinese tended to perceive food safety risks as more threatening than did westerners. The study attributed this to 'a high degree of social interdependency characterising most Asian countries', said researcher Julian Lai Chuk-ling, associate professor at the university's department of applied social studies. 'Results from a recent study on the perception of hazards related to food safety point clearly to the importance of trust in determining risk perception,' Dr Lai added. Dr Mak's call to focus on microbiological rather than chemical dangers in Hong Kong's food chain has struck a chord among several overseas experts. Gretchen Heimpel Stanton, the senior counsellor at the Agriculture and Commodities Division of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, said she was surprised at the focus of discussions on chemical contaminants. 'I am not a scientist but my understanding from the information that I have seen is that the greatest risk to human health are from microbiological contaminants. They are really what's killing people. It is not chemical contaminants,' Ms Stanton said. She said most consumers would choose chemical contaminants as the greatest risk from food. 'They don't understand that it isn't where the real risk comes and this is what the press picks up on,' she said on the sidelines of the symposium. She called for 'a bit more media balance in making it clear that everyone is aware of the fact that chemical contaminants are important and a concern but the greater risk seems to come from microbiological, which in some ways are more difficult to control - like salmonella and E coli'. Dean Cliver, head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Food Virology at the University of California, Davis, said that a 'zero-risk food supply is not possible'. That was why a valid risk assessment would 'guide choices as to which hazards can be most effectively controlled with the resources available', he said. Dr Cliver said a risk management system was founded on good information for risk assessment, rather than relying on testing for food safety. 'Food safety is best achieved by preventing contamination. The second choice is processing the food to undo possible contamination. If all else fails, food is tested to see whether it is contaminated,' he said.