Mandatory labelling may hit organic products

A mandatory food-labelling plan to include more nutritional information could force organic and ethnic foods off the shelves, industry sources fear.

The scheme would call for a 'one plus six' nutrients system - with one referring to energy levels in the food and six including details such as protein, carbohydrate and fats. The government believes the system could save billions in medical spending and other economic costs.

Earlier proposals for a voluntary phase have been scrapped and there would be a two-year grace period for compliance, sources close to the government said.

The proposal will be presented in a series of technical committee meetings with stakeholders beginning tomorrow.

The Food and Health Bureau said it was formulating a 'feasible scheme which will enable consumers to make an informed choice and ensure a stable food supply'.

A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau said: 'We consider that our original proposal of 'one plus nine nutrients' can be further modified.

'We are considering making revisions to the scheme and will take into account the views expressed by stakeholders' before submitting the amendment regulation to the Legislative Council early next year.

But industry and diplomatic sources said the mandatory labelling system would mean products from the mainland, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Japan would need to be tested to comply with the scheme.

The mainland, US, Brazil and Australia are the biggest food exporters to Hong Kong, with the city importing US$58.7 billion last year, according to a Global Agriculture Information Network report by agriculture officer Philip Shull of the US consulate in Hong Kong.

About 15 countries represented in the diplomatic corps have been worried about the plan since it was first floated because it would threaten specialty stores selling organic and healthy foods and those catering for ethnic minorities.

Manufacturers would not find it viable to produce special labels for Hong Kong-bound products because of cost considerations. It costs from HK$7,000 to HK$10,000 to test each product for nutrients, while restickering would add 50 cents to the cost of a 'low volume' product.

One source said: 'A company will not do something such as testing that will cost millions for a thousand dollars worth of sale.'

Hong Kong depends on the rest of the world for 95 per cent of its food products.

Nutrition labelling laws have long been discussed with a consultation paper released to Legco in April 2005.

Sources said the government was mindful of legislators' demands for labelling laws on food amid recent scares from mainly mainland food items.

Fung Bin-hau, chairman of Kam Hing Food Factory, which produces noodles, said the labelling requirements were unclear and meaningless.

'Under the requirements, dried noodles need to be labelled, but then fresh Ho Fun [flat rice noodles] do not need to be.'