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Food Safety Focus (151st Issue, February 2019) – Incident in Focus

Review of Food Incidents in 2018

Reported by Dr. Yuen-shan LAM, Medical & Health Officer,
Risk Management Section, Centre for Food Safety

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) has established a Food Incidents Surveillance System (FISS) to monitor and review food incidents occurred outside Hong Kong .  To protect public health, it is important to initiate timely risk management actions in response to those incidents that might have local impact.

Food Incidents in 2018

In 2018, the CFS identified about 1,950 food incidents from FISS, including about 450 food recalls related to undeclared allergens. The CFS assessed all food incidents identified and took follow up actions for those with local public health relevance. 

In response to these incidents with local relevance, the CFS took various actions, including contacting relevant authorities and local traders for further information, collecting relevant food samples and issuing local alerts to inform relevant stakeholders, etc. when necessary.  In 2018, the CFS issued 193 food incident posts, 31 trade alerts and 30 press releases to alert the public and the trade.  For those incidents with local alerts issued, the hazards identified included microbiological (e.g. Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, etc.), chemical (e.g. use of unauthorised or excessive preservatives, undeclared allergens, etc.), physical (e.g. foreign body) and others (e.g. substandard qualities), with 46% of cases related to microbiological hazards (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Types of hazard involved in local alerts due to food incident
Types of hazard involved in local alerts due to food incident

Highlights on Two Food Incidents

Two food incidents which attracted considerable interest from the public and the media in 2018 are highlighted below:

1.  Incident of Australian rockmelons suspected to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

In early March 2018, the CFS, through its FISS, noted a notice issued by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand  that an outbreak of listeriosis in Australia might be linked to consumption of contaminated rockmelons produced by a grower in New South Wales, Australia. 

The CFS immediately contacted relevant Australian authorities for follow up.  According to the information provided by the authorities, a total of nine local importers had imported the affected products.  The CFS contacted the concerned importers at once and all of them confirmed import of the affected products which had already been sold out. The importers initiated a recall according to the CFS’ advice.  In addition, the CFS enhanced surveillance of rockmelons in the local market, and all the test results were satisfactory for Listeria monocytogenes. 

In response to this incident, the CFS issued press release and trade alert to inform the public and the trade about the incident; and reminded consumers to wash and scrub the surface of the whole rockmelon with a clean brush under clean running water before cutting it for consumption.  There were no reports of local food poisoning arising from this incident.

2.  Incident of US romaine lettuce suspected to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

In late November 2018, the CFS, through its FISS, learnt that there were reports in the United States (US) and Canada about outbreaks of Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection that might be linked to consumption of contaminated romaine lettuce.  The CFS immediately contacted the US and Canadian authorities for more information.

In the beginning of the investigation, information about the place of origin of the affected romaine lettuce was not available.  For the sake of prudence, the CFS held all romaine lettuce imported from the US and Canada for testing at import level and stepped up surveillance of romaine lettuce from the two countries at retail level.  Moreover, the CFS issued press release to urge the public not to consume romaine lettuce from the US, Canada and unknown sources; and closely monitored the development of the incident.

Subsequently, the US authorities announced that the outbreaks of E. coli infection in the US and Canada were likely linked to romaine lettuce harvested in California.  In response, the CFS suspended the import into and sale in Hong Kong of romaine lettuce harvested in California; and continued taking samples of romaine lettuce harvested in other areas of the US to safeguard food safety for testing.  The CFS also updated the public and the trade on the issue, and informed the US authorities about the import suspension.  All the relevant test results were satisfactory for E. coli O157:H7.  There were no reports of food poisoning arising from this incident. 

In view of the submission of investigation report and the implementation of surveillance programme by the US authorities, CFS has conducted an assessment and decided to lift the import suspension harvested in Califonia on 19 February 2019.  The CFS will continue to closely monitor the incident to safeguard food safety.

Romaine lettuce

Way Forward

  The CFS will strive to reduce the local impact of the incidents and is committed to maintaining a comprehensive system to detect, manage and review food incidents in a timely manner, so as to protect public health.