Centre for Food Safety must up its game
- Our reliance on food supply from outside makes the agency’s gatekeeping role all the more important
Despite being a world-class city, Hong Kong still trails behind many places in terms of food safety. Even with the establishment of a dedicated government agency at an annual cost of more than HK$590 million, surveillance and regulation leave a lot to be desired, as shown in a report by the Audit Commission. The public spending watchdog is to be commended for exposing what appears to be serious gaps in our food safety regime.
From determining what food and drinks can come in to testing what is safe to consume, the Centre for Food Safety has been justifiably criticised. For example, of the 138 licences for imports of foodstuff by air examined by the auditor, more than 90 per cent were issued without proof of safety. But the centre argued that it was a “trade facilitation measure” rather than an inadequacy, adding that its staff could assess the risk based on the importers’ safety record. The commission also noticed that more than 110 consignments of chilled pork were transported by unlicensed vehicles. But the centre said it was not aware of such problems.
Similar issues were unearthed by environment group Green Peace 10 years ago. Video surveillance installed by the group at the Man Kam To Food Control Office found that in just half an hour, at least 10 trucks loaded with vegetables from the mainland bypassed the centre without inspection. An Ombudsman’s probe last year also put the spotlight on the government’s slack enforcement on food imports and slow pace of laboratory tests. The observation concurred with that of the auditor. In one case, it took the centre a long time to alert the public after a potentially unsafe food product was brought to its attention. These incidents raise questions over cost effectiveness. Over the past five years, the centre’s budget rose by one-third, from an annual HK$448 million. While officials, to their credit, often respond swiftly to food incidents here and overseas, investigations by the auditor and Ombudsman show that there is still much room for improvement.
Our reliance on food supply from outside makes the centre’s gatekeeping role all the more important. The centre must resolve to strengthen the food safety regime.