Food and Drinks

Amid margarine cancer warning, seven other food scares that worried Hong Kong parents and homemakers

From beef to baby milk powder, poultry to pork, plus eggs, cooking oil and soy sauce, scares over contaminated food have struck Hong Kong with worrying regularity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 7:05pm

Another day, another food scare.

It’s been a bad week for Hong Kong. On Monday the consumer council came out with a study that found around 20 spreads sold in the city “could increase your risk of cancer”. On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety suspended eggs from a US farm amid fears they were contaminated with salmonella (it did not say how many eggs from the North Carolina farm were in the city.)  

If spreading margarine on toast with those breakfast eggs never seemed so nerve-wracking, these are far from the only food scares to have hit the city. Seven other recent ones come easily to mind: 

Baby milk powder – 2017 

Batches of baby milk powder produced by French company Lactalis under the Mon Petit brand were recalled from Hong Kong shop shelves in December last year in a scare over salmonella contamination at a manufacturing plant in France. French prosecutors launched an investigation, dozens of families in Europe whose children got salmonella poisoning sued the company, and it later emerged 12 million cans sold to 83 countries were affected. 

Two months earlier, a batch of baby milk powder made by US firm Abbott was pulled from Hong Kong shelves. The city’s food safety authorities found the powder inside tins of Similac Stage 2 contained 66 per cent less niacin than claimed on the label. Niacin is one of the essential human nutrients. Abbott removed the single batch from Hong Kong shelves, saying that batch had only been sold in the city. 

European eggs – 2017 

scare over eggs produced in Europe hit Hong Kong in August last year after an unsafe level of insecticide was found in Dutch eggs. The Centre for Food Safety found that two samples of Dutch eggs exceeded the local legal limit for Fipronil, a highly toxic pest control chemical banned in food production. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands had begun recalling millions of eggs earlier the same month. 

Fipronil is often used to kill lice and fleas; it poses low risks to public health, but if consumed in large quantities it can cause harm to the ­kidneys, liver and thyroid glands, says the World Health ­Organisation.

Hong Kong pork – 2017 

In August last year, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department found 319 pigs from Jiangxi province in southeast China had traces of salbutamol and clenbuterol. When fed to pigs the drugs, commonly used to treat asthma, enhance the animals’ growth and leanness. 

At least 40 affected pigs were found to have been sold to 27 retailers across the city. Hong Kong’s health minister was forced to apologise for the government’s failure to stop the sale of the pork. Over 3,500 kilograms of pork and pig offal had to be destroyed by Hong Kong authorities. 

Cooking oil – 2017 

In July last year, the city’s consumer watchdog tested 60 types of olive oil and found 46 contained cancer-causing glycidol, a chemical for which there is no safe level of consumption. The council also found 41 samples to contain phthalates – chemicals that act as binding agents and make plastics more flexible. 

The government has vowed to better regulate the cooking oil sector, especially following Taiwan’s 2014 gutter oil scandal that saw contaminated fat mixed with regular lard and distributed to clients in the food industry, including those in Hong Kong.

Brazilian meat – 2017 

In March 2017, Hong Kong supermarkets and restaurants pulled from sale meat and poultry imported from Brazil after the city’s food safety authority banned them following a safety scandal in the South American country. The ban delivered a huge blow to Brazil, with Hong Kong the biggest export market for its beef; the city’s imports were valued at US$718 million in 2016, according to Brazilian government figures. 

The temporary ban was imposed after Brazilian authorities said they were investigating evidence that some of the nation’s largest meat producers had bribed government officials to approve the sale and export of contaminated meat. Hong Kong authorities lifted the ban after a few weeks.

Soy sauce – 2016 

Soy sauce is a staple in the city, but in 2016 the consumer council found more than one in four soy sauce samples contained a carcinogen believed to be dangerous if consumed in large quantities. Eleven samples from popular brands such as Yu Pin King and Tung Chun tested positive for 4-methylimidazole, identified as a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. 


New Zealand baby milk powder – 2013 

New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra found itself in hot, erm, milk when milk it had produced was found to contain a potentially deadly botulism-causing bacteria. So big was the issue that the company’s chief executive, Theo Spierings, travelled to China to apologise for the distress caused by the scare. The Hong Kong Fonterra recall involved about 140,000 cans, of which 82,000 were distributed to shops. At the same time, Cow & Gate recalled 80,000 cans of one type of its stage-three baby formula in Hong Kong and Macau.