Latest update on FEHD investigation into suspected substandard cooking oil

Following days of thorough investigation and source-tracing, the findings of the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) today (December 27) showed that a consignment of cooking oil with Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) level higher than the Mainland's limit was very likely caused by undesirable quality control during the production process. So far, there is no evidence that so-called "gutter oil" was involved.

CFS' investigation revealed that the consignment of peanuts oil was manufactured in Qingdao, Shandong Province. A total of 80 barrels were imported to Hong Kong by the New World Enterprise (HK) Limited in mid-November. Among them, 16 barrels were marked and sealed by the CFS during investigation. The remaining 64 barrels were confirmed to have been sold to nine distributors and 19 of them were successfully recalled by the importer upon the CFS' request. They were returned to their place of origin. The remainder was understood to have been sold or discarded by the distributors and no remaining stocks have so far been found from the food establishments/premises concerned.

After the test results of 39 cooking oil samples were announced on December 18, 23 more samples were collected from 23 locations, including the importer and different distributors and restaurants, for testing of BaP. The test results showed that one sample from the same batch of peanut oil taken from the importer was found to contain BaP at a level of 14 micrograms (mcg) per kilogram (kg), exceeding the Mainland's legal limit of 10 mcg/kg. Meanwhile, another sample collected from one of the distributors was detected with 3.1 mcg/kg of BaP, exceeding the European Union (EU)'s limit of 2 mcg/kg. BaP was either not detected or below the EU limit in the rest of the samples.

Through checking records kept by the importer and repeated discussions with the State General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the CFS found that the batch of cooking oil in question was manufactured by the Qingdao Changsheng Group Co Ltd, which was understood to be a well-established enterprise bearing a good track record. Its products were monitored and subject to regular sampling tests by the local Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, with quality certificates issued for its products. Nevertheless, the consignment of 80 barrels of cooking oil concerned was not selected for testing before export.

The company concerned indicated that it would ascertain the cause of the excessive BaP content in order to avoid recurrence of similar incidents in future. Export of this particular brand of cooking oil to Hong Kong would be suspended until the result was known.

In the course of investigation, the FEHD has invoked the stipulations under the Food Safety Ordinance and effectively traced the source and distribution of the affected cooking oil according to the sale records kept by the importer and the distributors, and issued warning letters to nine food importers/distributors who have not yet registered under the Food Safety Ordinance and one registered food distributor for failing to comply with the record-keeping requirement under the same Ordinance. Besides, a notice was served to a vendor due to the unsatisfactory hygiene condition of its establishment's premises, requiring the persons concerned to improve the hygiene conditions of the premises.

"Legal limits of BaP in food are not set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) and in Hong Kong legislation. Furthermore, 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," a CFS spokesman said.

"The CFS collected samples at different levels under its routine food surveillance programme and targeted food surveillance projects to ensure that they are in compliance with the legal requirements and are fit for human consumption. To safeguard public health, the CFS will conduct risk assessment whenever BaP is detected in food to determine if there is any potential health risk and advise what measures are to be taken in response," he said.

The CFS has all along been monitoring the quality of cooking oil in Hong Kong, he added. 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 has embarked on an additional targeted food surveillance project on cooking oil. Samples will be taken from different levels 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.

Ends/Thursday, December 27, 2012
Issued at HKT 20:00