Loophole opens the door to radioactive food in Hong Kong, lawmaker warns

Lax safety checks at container terminal have allowed banned imports from Japan and elsewhere to enter Hong Kong, says lawmaker

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 3:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:15pm

Radioactive contaminated food may have been entering the city unnoticed for years because of deficiencies in safety controls on fresh produce brought in by sea, the South China Morning Post has learned.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan said food safety surveillance was too relaxed at the Kwai Chung container terminal - the only sea entry point for food from overseas - as it relied heavily on the importer taking the initiative.

Food imported by sea does not go through routine checks at the dock as the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has no food inspection checkpoint at the terminal. Food imported by air, however, is tested for radiation at the airport.

Food imported by sea is inspected by health officers only when it is moved to storage areas by importers, according to the department. This would allow some food importers to avoid inspection, Wong said.

She cited a case in January, when 10 boxes of Japanese carrots from Chiba, one of five prefectures from which imports of vegetables and fruits have been banned since the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident in 2011, entered the city by sea.

One box was sold and two other boxes were found for sale in the Yau Ma Tei wholesale fruit market when food safety officers acted on a complaint.

"It has exposed … loopholes in our food safety system," Wong said. "We do not know if there is more banned food being sold in the city that has not been discovered by the government."

Since importers are only required to complete the import declarations within 14 days after the importation under the Import and Export Ordinance, "some small importers" would not bother to alert food inspectors and simply sell their perishable produce before health officers obtained the details of the declaration, a source said.

"If the health officers want to conduct checks after getting the details of the import declaration, but the imported food is already distributed in the market for sale, how can the health officers trace the food and conduct checks?" the source said.

Hong Kong imported 15,093 tonnes of vegetables and fruit from Japan by sea last year, about 0.8 per cent of total vegetables and fruit imports by sea.

Since March 2011, the department had stepped up surveillance of fresh produce imported from Japan such as milk, vegetables and fruits, to examine radiation levels, a spokesman said.

These Japanese foods are subject to radiation checks. Importers must also provide relevant import documents showing the prefectures from where the food originated, he said.

He said the importer and retailers responsible for importing the questionable carrots might face prosecution, but he failed to explain how the vegetables managed to enter the city despite the food safety measures.

He also did not comment on whether there might be a loophole in the inspection system.

Kowloon Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association vice-chairman Cheung Chi-cheung said importers had to notify the department for inspection whenever they picked up the goods.

"An importer has to notify the department of the exact date of collection, and the officers will come later for inspection," said Cheung. "If you don't notify the government they would know, as they have regular checks with shipping companies."

But Cheung said while food samples were sent for tests, goods from the same batch could be sold in the market before the results were known.

Spokesmen for Japanese-style retail chain Yata and food importer Aji-no-chinmi both said their products were inspected by the department before sale.