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FEHD's follow-up investigation into suspected substandard cooking oil

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) today (December 18) announced initial test results of 39 cooking oil samples taken last week from more than 10 different locations. The results showed that Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) was detected in two samples at respective levels of 16 and 17 micrograms per kilogram, exceeding the Mainland's legal limit of 10 mcg/kg and the European Union (EU)'s limit of 2 mcg/kg. BaP was also found in two other samples at respective levels of 5.8 and 6.2 mcg/kg, lower than the Mainland's limit but exceeding that of the EU. Of the remaining 35 samples, BaP was either not detected or below the EU limit.

In the light of a newspaper report last week about a suspected unlicensed establishment supplying for sale cooking oil that is alleged to be of substandard quality, the FEHD took immediate follow-up action by inspecting the establishment in question, the cooking oil supplier of that establishment and 13 restaurants, collecting a total of 39 cooking oil samples for testing of BaP.

As shown in the test results, two samples, which were found to have BaP at levels exceeding the limits adopted by the EU and the Mainland, were collected from the same brand and from the cooking oil establishment's supplier in Tuen Mun. The other two samples with BaP detected at levels lower than Mainland's limit but higher than that of the EU were collected from the cooking oil establishment's premises in Kwai Chung. Investigation into the sources and distribution of this cooking oil is under way.

A CFS spokesman said, "Legal limits of BaP in food are not set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) and in Hong Kong legislation. Making reference to the standards adopted by the Mainland and the EU and according to the results of risk assessment adopting the margin of exposure approach, the health risk concern for consuming cooking oil with a BaP level at 17 mcg/kg should not be high.

"However, for the sake of prudence, the CFS has requested the cooking oil supplier concerned to stop selling and recall the affected product. Further tests would be conducted on the four samples to confirm whether they contained other harmful substances."

Regarding whether the cooking oil samples were "gutter oil", the spokesman pointed out that there is not any established scientific method to test and identify "gutter oil". Nevertheless, the quality of cooking oil could be monitored by conducting chemical tests to ascertain the amount of harmful substances contained.

The CFS safeguards public health through its routine food surveillance programme and targeted food surveillance. Whenever BaP is detected in food, the CFS will conduct risk assessment to determine if there is any potential health risk and advise what measures are to be taken in response.

The CFS has all along been monitoring the quality of cooking oil in Hong Kong. More than 310 cooking oil samples were tested for different chemicals, which include erucic acid, colouring matter, mycotoxins, anti-oxidants and metallic contaminants from January 2011 to October 2012 under the regular food surveillance programme. All samples were found to be satisfactory.

In a targeted food surveillance project announced last month, 68 samples of used cooking oil were collected from various local restaurants for testing for BaP and other chemicals. Results of all samples were also satisfactory.

"To further allay public concerns, the CFS will embark on an additional targeted food surveillance project on cooking oil. Samples will be taken from different stages of the food supply chain, which include importers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants, to ensure that the products are in compliance with the legal requirements in Hong Kong and are fit for human consumption. The project is expected to be completed within one to two months and results will be announced once available," the spokesman said.

BaP is one of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Since PAHs are ubiquitous in the environment, they may be found in various types of food, including cereals and vegetables. Levels of BaP may vary depending on the processing conditions and are often higher in barbecued or smoked meat or fish. According to the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), cereals, vegetables, fats and oils are major contributors to dietary exposure to PAHs.

BaP is toxic to genes and can cause cancer in humans. A safe intake level is, therefore, hard to be defined for this type of substance. However, the JECFA commented in 2005 that the estimated dietary exposure to BaP might be of low human health concern, whereas the European Food Safety Authority in a 2008 evaluation commented that exposure to PAHs as a whole might indicate a potential health concern for high consumers. People are advised to maintain a balanced diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

The spokesman said, "The FEHD and the CFS will follow up the case, continue the investigation and take appropriate actions to safeguard public health. With regard to the unsatisfactory hygiene condition of the cooking oil establishment's premises in Kwai Chung, the FEHD will serve a notice to the persons concerned under relevant legislation, requiring improvement of the hygiene conditions of the premises.

"The FEHD will continue to investigate into the suspected operation of unlicensed food business on that premises. Prosecutions will be initiated if there is sufficient evidence of anyone being in breach of the law, which includes the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, the Food Safety Ordinance, the Food Business Regulation and the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations."

The CFS also held a special meeting today with representatives of the trade to brief them on the testing results. They were reminded again to source food from reliable suppliers, including checking whether the suppliers possess the relevant food business licences and whether they have been registered as food distributors under the Food Safety Ordinance as well as checking the source and quality of the food ingredients. They should also maintain a good recording system in accordance with the Food Safety Ordinance to allow source tracing if needed.

Ends/Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Issued at HKT 17:59

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Last revision date:18-12-2012