Hong Kong Fine Dining

Waiter, there’s catfish in my grouper: Hong Kong customs struggles to fight false advertising 

Complaints against dishonest sales practices surge 30 per cent last year but only a meagre 1.4 per cent were investigated

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 8:28am

Are you eating what you think you are? 

In Hong Kong, there is an increasing chance you are not, according to figures released by the Customs and Excise Department, which tracks false advertising in the food industry.

Complaints against dishonest sales practices by restaurants and grocers surged by 30 per cent to 1,399 last year – but not much could be done due to a lack of information from consumers and the subjective nature of the grievances, the department said.

“Buyers thought the food, such as dried fish maw, was fake as the textures were different from last time they ate it. We went to buy samples and found that the products were actually real. We could not launch any investigation,” Chik Shun-kwan, the head of the department’s trade descriptions investigation bureau, said. 

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In fact, only 1.4 per cent of last year’s complaints could even be investigated. Among the complaints against food products, eateries and supermarkets, the department could only launch a full investigation into 20 of them. This is compared to 28 cases, or 2.6 per cent, out of 1,075 complaints in 2016 and 19 cases, or 1.9 per cent, out of 978 complaints in 2015.

Among them, a restaurant was convicted in 2016 of using cheaper catfish in a popular Chinese dish – grouper fillet with sweetcorn sauce. 

In another case, a Japanese eatery was fined HK$10,000 (US$1,280) this month after customers were enticed to buy vouchers for meals that included lobsters and grilled oysters only to find the crustaceans were never in stock while oysters cost extra.

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Chik said many of the complaints were difficult to investigate because the disputes over food quality were subjective.

“In some other cases, customers delayed the complaints. The products were not on sale any more when we went for a test buy.”

She said investigations relied heavily on undercover visits and purchasing the products in question as laboratory examinations played a vital role.

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The authority could only successfully prosecute 30 cases over the past three years.

One such conviction came three weeks ago when a supermarket proprietor was fined HK$14,000 for selling frozen “areolated coral grouper” under the label “leopard coral grouper”.

Six hundred grams, or a catty, of fresh leopard coral grouper costs about HK$340 – 44 per cent more than the same amount of areolated coral grouper.

Last July, a supermarket proprietor was fined HK$8,000 for selling frozen catfish fillets as more expensive grouper fish meat and sole fish fillet which cost HK$50 and HK$29 per kilogram respectively. A kilogram of catfish fillets should cost only HK$10.  

“Regardless if the supermarket could earn money from the price difference, it would mislead customers that they could buy relatively expensive goods at a bargain price,” Chik said. 

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No one has ever been sentenced to jail for misleading consumers but the heaviest punishment came in 2016 when a supermarket was fined HK$180,000 for charging customers the original prices of on-sales items.

The price of salmon was marked down from HK$34.9 to HK$29.9 while sausages were down from HK$13.9 to HK$7.9. But the customers were charged the original price.

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Under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, any trader who falsely describes products, knows they cannot provide goods when receiving payments or fails to provide products as described, faces up to five years in jail and a maximum fine of HK$500,000.

“More sales will be on as Chinese New Year is approaching. Keep a close eye on the details of what the bargain’s really about to avoid misunderstanding,” Chik said.