Feature Article

I. Optimizing the Food Safety Regulatory Mechanism

Hi, everybody! As you may be aware, the Government is planning to reorganize the food safety regulatory framework to enhance food safety and veterinary public health control. Let me tell you more about the new framework.

Food safety is one of the utmost public concerns in Hong Kong. Food safety control measures in Hong Kong are based on the risk analysis principles promulgated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations, which consist of three intertwining processes of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

At present, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) are jointly responsible for areas of work on food safety and agriculture and fisheries (including both food and non-food animals). As both departments are responsible for the execution of veterinary public health and food safety functions, the deployment of human resources cannot be optimized. Given our limited resources and the fact that most of our food come from the Mainland and overseas countries, the current regulatory framework attaches importance to sample testings mainly at retail level rather than exercising effective control at source. According to the latest food safety management concept of developed countries in the West, management and control at source is the best way to ensure food safety.

In view of increasing public concern over food safety and the community's expectation for comprehensive regulation of food sold in Hong Kong to ensure that they are safe and wholesome, the Government has conducted a comprehensive review of the current surveillance and regulatory framework. To pool our resources for more effective control along the food supply chain to ensure food safety, the Government proposed to the LegCo Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene on 17 October 2005 to reorganize FEHD and AFCD and form a new department, namely the Food Safety, Inspection and Quarantine Department (FSIQD) which specializes on food safety related works.

FSIQD will be responsible for food safety, veterinary public health, inspection, quarantine and regulation over animals and plants, vegetables, fresh water fish for food purpose, seafood and food products, as well as control over local livestock, poultry farms and mariculture farms, etc. Under the new framework, the regulation of food safety will be more comprehensive, while control at source and inspection of designated mariculture farms in Hong Kong and the Mainland will also be enhanced.

A Centre for Food Safety (CFS) will be set up in FSIQD and a post of Controller, Centre for Food Safety will be created. The Controller will oversee the daily operation and management of the CFS and formulate strategies and objectives on food safety. As the spokesman for the CFS, the Controller must have professional knowledge and experience in public health and food safety, and a good rapport with food safety regulatory authorities in the Mainland and overseas to ensure the smooth operation of the CFS. Various branches will be set up under FSIQD to undertake matters relating to food safety and veterinary public health. Supporting and professional staff including veterinarians, medical doctors and food scientists like toxicologists, nutritionists, food biotechnologists, etc. will be recruited as necessary. These new arrangements will enable the Government to enforce the existing food safety legislations and to review and amend the regulatory requirements more effectively.

With the establishment of FSIQD, food safety control will be optimized and control at source will be enhanced. FSIQD will step up the regulation and inspection of local livestock and poultry farms, vegetable farms and fish rafts. Special teams with interdisciplinary expertise will be formed to step up inspection of registered farms, fish processing plants and mariculture farms in the Mainland and to facilitate the same efforts in other countries supplying food to Hong Kong. FSIQD will also enhance the food surveillance efforts at import, wholesale and retail levels to assure the public that food products supplied by the Mainland and other countries are safe for consumption.

To meet the community's expectation for improving our food safety regulatory framework and mechanism, the Government will proceed with the re-organization as early as possible. It is expected that the new framework will be put in place on or around June 2006.

I would like to remind you that food safety can only be assured through the tripartite collaboration between the Government, the trade and the community. In short, the Government monitors the trade's compliance with the legislations on food hygiene and safety and provide the public with food safety information. The trade should endeavour to ensure that all food products imported/manufactured/sold meet the food hygiene and safety standards. The community should stay alert to the risks of the food they bought and follow the proper hygienic practices in handling food.

II. Observe food hygiene practices when supplying hotpot

"Hotpot" is very often the first yummy food that comes to people's mind in cold winter. Gathering round the table with family or friends to savour hotpot is a great way to satisfy the stomach and to take the chill off. Hotpot has become popular in Hong Kong with many restaurants, big or small, offering different varieties of hotpot.

People enjoy hotpot in much the same way. Basically, it is dip boiling. But what tickles is the combination of different "soup base," ingredients and sauces that give hotpot varying characteristics and flavours. Some hotpot ingredients, including shellfish, seafood and meat, are high risk food because they may contain pathogens and viruses such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Norovirus, hepatitis A virus, and Staphylococcus aureus. The restaurant management must be careful and ensure food hygiene practices are observed when serving hotpot in order to prevent food poisoning incidents. The following measures should be adopted to ensure food safety:

* Purchase fresh ingredients

* Store food properly in suitable environment and at appropriate temperature

* Keep food, utensils and both hands clean

* Handle raw and cooked food separately

* Advise customers to cook food thoroughly

III. Food Consumption Survey

FEHD is conducting the biggest and the most comprehensive food consumption survey in Hong Kong to collect information on food consumption patterns of the general public and evaluate the risks associated with food. In the past, only small-scale studies and no territory-wide surveys had been conducted to collect food consumption data for the purpose of food safety risk assessment. It is therefore crucial for FEHD to conduct this survey to establish a comprehensive database for such purpose. The survey will also enhance the department's risk assessment capacity. Take the recent malachite green case as an example, if comprehensive food consumption data is available, it will facilitate FEHD's risk assessment. Moreover, such information will be useful for the Government to formulate public policies and education strategies to promote food safety in Hong Kong.

This survey mainly collects food consumption data of the local population, such as the types of food intake, amounts of food intake and dietary habit. FEHD has commissioned the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) to conduct this survey. The CUHK survey team consists of experts in nutrition, public health and statistics as well as well-trained interviewers.

Fieldwork has started this year. FEHD will send invitation letters to selected households to explain the interview arrangement. Invited households are invited to contact the CUHK Survey Unit by telephone so that one member can be recruited from each household for interview.

Invited households are urged to render their full support and cooperation by actively participating in this survey. For further information, please call the FEHD Hotline on 2868 0000 or the CUHK Survey Unit on 2609 6876 during office hours, or e-mail to the CUHK Survey Unit at hkfcs@cuhk.edu.hk.

Food Safety Tips

Prevention of Avian Influenza - Tips for Food Safety

Raw poultry meat and poultry eggs may be contaminated by bacteria or viruses such as salmonellas or avian flu virus. The mainstay of prevention lies with thorough cooking, which can kill bacteria and viruses in food. According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs can be a source of infection. Therefore, the risk of contracting avian flu could be greatly reduced by thorough cooking of poultry meat and poultry eggs.

As a general precautionary measure, the public are advised to observe good personal, food and environmental hygiene at all times. The following safety tips are useful:




Food Safety Plan Corner

Food Safety during and after Power Failure/Suspension

While electricity supply in Hong Kong remains stable, power failures/suspension do occur occasionally. During such time, the cooling system of the refrigerator stops, and the food in the refrigerator may turn bad easily. To ensure food safety, please read the following tips to minimize the risk of food poisoning caused by power failures/suspenison.

In case of power failure/suspension, keep the refrigerator door closed to slow down the rise of temperature inside the refrigerator. If prior notice on the time of suspension of electricity supply has been given by the building management office/the power company, or you know that the suspension will last for quite some time, you should transfer the food to an unaffected refrigerator or put sufficient dry ice in the refrigerator to keep the food at proper temperature.

If the refrigerator (with the temperature maintained at 4oC or below before the power failure/suspension) is kept closed during power failure/suspension, the food stored therein can be kept for about 4 hours while the food stored in a closed freezer (with the temperature maintained at -18oC or below before the power failure/suspension) can be kept for about 24 hours. The actual time that food can be kept during power failure/suspension depends on the thermal insulation of refrigerators, the temperatures inside the refrigerator before the power failure/suspension and the ambient temperature.

When power supply resumes, check the food carefully. If the refrigerator is contaminated by drips from thawed food, cleanse and disinfect it thoroughly to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Frozen and chilled food stored in refrigerator during power failure/suspension can be consumed after thorough cooking if it has been kept at a temperature of 4°C or below. However, if the food has been stored at the "Temperature Danger Zone" (4°C to 60°C) for two hours or longer during the said period, the colour or smell of the food would have changed, or if you have doubt on the safety of the refrigerated food, you should discard the food.

Interpretation of Ordinance

Regulation of Food Additives

Food additives are natural substances or synthetic compounds deliberately added to food during the manufacturing process. They mainly serve to extend shelf-life, enhance taste and flavour as well as to improve the colour and appearance of food.

There are many types of food additives, commonly-used ones include preservatives, antioxidants, colouring matters and sweeteners, etc. The laws of Hong Kong stipulate that food additives do not include vitamins and minerals used for enriching food nutrients, nor seasoning substances like salt, herbs or spices.

The food legislation of Hong Kong can be found in Part V (Food and Drugs) of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) and its subsidiary legislation. Requirements on food additives are stipulated in the following Regulations:

For details of the above legislation, please visit the website at www.elegislation.gov.hk.

Recently the food trade has requested the Government for permission to use a food additive named "Ethylene Diamine Tetraacetate (EDTA)"*. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Addictives (JECFA) has evaluated EDTA and put it into the General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA), specifying its use and the maximum permitted level. However, according to the existing Preservatives in Food Regulations of Hong Kong, EDTA is not permitted for use in food. Therefore, it was gazetted on 28 October that EDTA would be included in the Regulations as a permitted antioxidant with effect from 23 December.

*EDTA extends the shelf-life of food by preventing deterioration (such as fat rancidity and change of colour) caused by oxidation.