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Food Safety Focus (111th Issue, October 2015) – Incident in Focus

Online Shopping and Food Safety

Ms. Janny MA, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety

Online shopping has become popular; food/ food ingredients ranging from raw meats, sashimi to sandwiches can be delivered to consumers, from Hong Kong or even abroad, by simply clicking a button. This article addresses the increasing concerns over the microbiological risk associated with food purchased online and the importance of effective control to ensure food safety.

High-risk Foods

Bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment; virtually any food can harbour bacteria. While spoilage bacteria cause taste and smell changes in food which affect the quality, pathogenic bacteria can cause illness and lead to food safety problems.

In general, bacteria can grow rapidly (i.e. one bacterium can double in just 15 minutes and can multiply to over 16 million within six hours!) in high moisture, high protein foods that have not been processed to prevent their growth. Perishable foods are thus prone to deterioration if they are not stored, refrigerated and handled properly within a short period of time.

No matter they are purchased online or from traditional retail stores, ready-to-eat perishable foods, including sandwiches and marinated raw crabs which have been implicated in recent food poisoning outbreaks, are generally of great food safety concern. It is because they will not be subject to further heat treatment before consumption to inactivate any harmful microorganisms that may be present.

High-risk foods purchased online including those implicated in previous foodborne outbreaks
High-risk foods purchased online including those implicated in previous foodborne outbreaks

Control Measures

Upon ordering online, food products are delivered to individual buyers, from miles to thousand miles away. Effective measures to protect food from cross-contamination and prevent bacterial growth particularly during long distance transport are essential to ensure food safety. It is rather difficult for consumers to verify though.

Food must be adequately protected. Perishable foods such as meat and poultry should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other foods. Containers for transporting foods should be kept in an appropriate state of cleanliness, repair and condition. Effective cleaning and disinfection should take place between loads if the same container is used for transporting different foods. Where appropriate, particularly in bulk transport, containers shouldbe designated and marked for food-use only and be used only for that purpose.

Noting that inadequate food temperature control is one of the most common causes of foodborne illness or food spoilage, systems should be in place to ensure that temperature is controlled effectively i.e. keep refrigerated foods at 4°C or below, frozen foods at or below -18°C. Pack perishable foods in an insulated box with a cold source or in a cool bag to maintain a proper storage environment where necessary. Make sure perishable foods are not held at 4°C-60°C for a prolonged period i.e. for more than 4 hours. If they are, they should be discarded.

Key Points to Note

  1. Ready-to-eat perishable foods, regardless they are purchased online or from traditional retail stores, are of high food safety risk.
  2. Like those sold in the tradition manner, it is essential to protect perishable foods sold online from contamination and follow strict time/ temperature control throughout the supply chain.
  3. Food businesses involved in the preparation of food for sale or the sale of restricted foods such as sashimi, sushi, oysters to be eaten raw and chilled meat are required to obtain relevant licences/restricted food permits from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).

Advice to the Public

  • Pay attention to the nature and potential risks associated with the food items if you intend to purchase online. Susceptible populations, e.g., the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should take extra precautions.
  • Patronise reliable licensed food premises/holders of restricted food permits, especially when buying high-risk foods such as oysters to be eaten raw, sushi and sashimi etc. Ask the operator to provide information about their licensing status or identity and verify such information through the website of the FEHD.
  • Consider whether the high-risk foods purchased online can be kept at a safe temperature during transportation.
  • Transactions made outside Hong Kong might be subject to risk. For instance, the coverage of consumer protection abroad can be different from that in Hong Kong.

Advice to the Trade

  • Sale activities online, like in the conventional business mode, are regulated by relevant legislation in Hong Kong, including food safety and food business regulations pertaining to the importation, advertisement and sale of food products.
    • All food for sale must be fit for human consumption.
    • An import licence from the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) is required for the importation of chilled/frozen meat or chilled/ frozen poultry meat.
    • Application to the CFS for importation of milk, milk beverage or frozen confection from approved sources of manufacture outside Hong Kong is also required.
    • Ensure the requirements on food labelling under the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W) regarding the sale, advertisement and display of food are complied with, if prepackaged foods are to be sold online.
    • Any person who carries on a food importation or distribution business must register as a food importer or a food distributor and keep records relating to the movements of food as stipulated in the Food Safety Ordinance (Cap. 612).
    • It is an offence to prepare food for sale without a valid food factory or other forms of licences issued by the FEHD.
    • It is an offence to sell or offer to sell restricted food, such as chilled/frozen meat, poultry and fish, oysters to be eaten raw, sushi and sashimi, without relevant permission granted by the FEHD.
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Last Revision Date : 21-10-2015