China food safety

Almost all food imported into Hong Kong by air getting through without safety documents, government auditor finds

  • Audit Commission report criticises Centre for Food Safety for failing to ensure licences are issued only after importers submit documents
  • More than 90 per cent of food consumed in Hong Kong is imported
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 10:12pm

More than nine in 10 food products imported by air were given official permission to enter Hong Kong despite having no documents to prove they were safe, according to an Audit Commission report.

The report, released on Wednesday, criticised the Centre for Food Safety for failing to ensure import licences were issued only after the importers submitted necessary documents, such as a health certificate, to support safety claims.

The commission conducted a week-long inspection of the centre, which was formed under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department in 2006.

“The food and hygiene authorities have to ensure that import licences are issued after submission of supporting documents as far as practicable, and that Centre for Food Safety staff must follow the guidelines on physical inspections,” the 189-page report suggested.

The director of food and hygiene agreed with the audit recommendations, a spokesman for the centre said.

More than 90 per cent of food consumed locally last year was imported, with a total value of over HK$205 billion (US$26.3 billion).

Over the past five years, the centre’s budget rose 32 per cent from HK$448 million to HK$592 million, and more than half of it was used on import control.

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In an inspection, the auditor found that 134 – or 94 per cent – of 138 food licences obtained for air import between January 25 and 31 were issued to importers even though they did not submit any of the required documents.

According to the centre’s operating manual, supporting documents include an original or photocopy of the health certificate, or import permission.

The centre argued it was a “trade facilitation measure” rather than an inadequacy, and that its staff could “exercise flexibility” after checking the information during the licence application and assessing the risk based on the track record of the importers.

Staff would also physically inspect imports under the Food Surveillance Programme, the centre’s spokesman said. But the audit report said some items with no proof of safety were also slipping though the physical inspections.

In an examination of 44 consignments of airborne imports, it was found three consignments of frozen chicken and pork from Europe were released with the consent of a senior health inspector, although health certificates were not submitted and the meat was not checked.

Food imported by land was also loosely inspected, with trade insiders warning of the risks of smuggling.

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The commission found more than 110 consignments of chilled pork were transported by an unlicensed vehicle from mainland China on a daily basis for over four months – but food safety officials stationed at the Man Kam To checkpoint said they were not aware of the illegal vehicle.

Licence control and physical checks were also found to be inadequate in the food control office at the checkpoint, which handled 23,000 consignments, or 90 per cent of the total food imported from the mainland by road in 2017.

“Audit also noted that apart from the first-time examination and inspection of hygiene conditions when vehicles entered into [Man Kam To], the [centre] did not have the practise of conducting periodic examinations,” the report said.

An auditor’s inspection between January and April found that 14 of the 59 vehicles transporting chilled food through Man Kam To were operating without the required permission.

Of the 14, 12 went through the food control office and brought in 159 consignments of food without being questioned. The other two went through the checkpoint without even passing the food control office.

If pork was smuggled in and didn’t go through proper quarantine procedures, who can ensure its safety?
Hui Wai-kin, Pork Traders General Association chairman

Hui Wai-kin, chairman of the Pork Traders General Association, said an unlicensed vehicle transporting chilled meat without being inspected could be a form of smuggling.

“If pork was smuggled in and didn’t go through proper quarantine procedures, who can ensure its safety?” Hui said.

Hui, in the pork business for more than 50 years, said the industry expected food safety officials to enforce the laws strictly.

“They must do the job of gatekeeping well, especially when several provinces on the mainland are affected by African swine fever,” he said, referring to the disease which causes deadly haemorrhagic fever in domesticated pigs but is not harmful to humans.

Up to the end of September, at least 20 cases of African swine fever in eight provinces, ranging from south to north from Anhui to Inner Mongolia, have been reported by the mainland authorities.

Lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan urged the food safety authorities and customs to explain the operational loopholes discovered by the audit.

“Inspection of airborne imports used to be the most stringent, and the exporters should have prepared some required documents,” Wong said. “How could the Hong Kong authority issue import licences without receiving any documents?”

Wong, a member of the Legislative Council’s food safety panel, was also concerned loose controls on imports by road, in particular chilled pork highlighted by the auditors, could lead to health hazards.

“It could be quite dangerous if pork contaminated with veterinary drugs or hog cholera came into our market,” she said.