LCQ9: Regulating food safety


Hong Kong (HKSAR) -      Following is a question by the Hon Junius Ho and a written reply by the Acting Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan, in the Legislative Council today (January 11):

Question:
 
     On November 18last year, the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department released a report on the follow-up risk assessment study on aluminium in food (the study report).  In the study, 309 samples were collected from 36 types of food products (including steamed buns and bakery products).  The study report has found that several types of food products use aluminium-containing food additives.  For instance, some samples of egg waffle had an aluminium concentration as high as 400 mg/kg.  The study report has also pointed out that aluminium has developmental toxicity which may cause growth retardation and affect renal functions.  On the other hand, the test results on extended-spectrum beta-lactamase-producing bacteria in chicken meat published by the Consumer Council on December 15 last year (the test results) have revealed that such bacteria are impervious to third generation cephalosporins, which is an antibiotic widely used in clinical treatment of infectious diseases with bacterial origin.  The test results have also found that in the 100 samples of chicken meat, 62% contained such bacteria.  Among them, the proportion of samples from live chicken freshly slaughtered on site (including Kamei chickens and Tai On chickens which are quite commonly consumed by Hong Kong people) found to contain the bacteria in question was even as high as 92%.  Regarding measures to enhance food safety, will the Government inform this Council:
 
(1) how the authorities will follow up the recommendations put forward in the study report, including whether they will (i) by making reference to the relevant standards of the World Health Organization or the European Union, draw up guidelines on the use of aluminium-containing food additives, and (ii) consider enacting legislation to require food manufacturers to comply with the relevant guidelines, so as to prevent food products which have used excessive aluminium-containing food additives from entering the market; whether the authorities will step up public education to make people aware of the health hazards arising from consuming food products which have used excessive aluminium-containing food additives;
 
(2) as CFS had collected the aforesaid food samples as early as in May to July 2015 but did not publish its study results until November 18, 2016, whether CFS will take measures to shorten the time required for conducting studies so that members of the public may be informed of the latest food safety information as early as possible; if CFS will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(3) how the authorities will respond to the aforesaid test results; whether they will improve the food inspection mechanism to prevent chicken meat with drug-resistant bacteria from entering the market; if they will, of the implementation timetable; as the test results have found that the bacteria levels in samples of chilled chicken meat which has been defrosted and samples of frozen chicken meat were far lower than that in live chicken freshly slaughtered on site, whether the authorities will draw up guidelines on the safe storage of live chicken freshly slaughtered on site for reference by retailers; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and
 
(4) whether the authorities have assessed if the existing food safety surveillance mechanism is adequate to ensure that food products available in the market (including chicken meat and bakery products) meet the relevant food safety standards; if they have, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
 
Reply:
 
President,
 
     The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) adopts the risk analysis framework promulgated by international food safety authorities in regulating food safety.  Risk analysis comprises three main areas of work, namely risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.  The purpose of conducting risk assessment is to provide the relevant background information, statistics and scientific basis for public education and regulatory work in relation to food safety.  Every year, CFS conducts a number of risk assessment studies to review and analyse potential food related hazards (e.g. chemical hazards and microbiological hazards) of public health relevancy, with a view to formulating risk communication messages and management actions as appropriate to safeguard food safety.  Subsequent to releasing the first risk assessment study report on aluminium in food in Hong Kong in 2009, CFS conducted a follow-up study and announced the results in 2016.  The follow-up study examined the levels of aluminium in certain foods, which were shown to contain moderate to high levels of aluminium in the previous risk assessment study, and the use of aluminium-containing food additives in these foods.  The levels of aluminium in these foods and those reported in the previous study were also compared to estimate the normal dietary exposure to aluminium-containing food additives of the Hong Kong population and its associated food safety risk.

     Our reply to the various parts of the question is as follows:
 
(1) To reduce the dietary exposure of the public to aluminium, CFS formed a working group comprising trade representatives and the academia to work out together the Guidelines on the Use of Aluminium-containing Food Additives (the Guidelines).  CFS released the Guidelines in 2009 and introduced the Guidelines to the trade through its publications, seminars and trade consultation forums on many occasions.  CFS calls upon the trade to adopt the principles and recommendations set out in the Guidelines to reduce the use of aluminium-containing additives when preparing food products.  In view of the results of the follow-up study, CFS has updated the Guidelines accordingly by making reference to the practices of different places.  The Guidelines are applicable to all food manufacturers and producers, including restaurants and bakeries.  CFS will continue to publicise the Guidelines to the trade through different channels.  Members of the trade will be invited to share their experience in reducing aluminium-containing food additives in food production.
 
     CFS has been advising the public to maintain a balanced diet so as to avoid excessive exposure to aluminium from certain food items.  When purchasing pre-packaged food products, consumers can refer to the ingredient lists on the food labels for information on whether aluminium-containing food additives have been included.
 
     The Public Health and Municipal Service Ordinance stipulates that all food for sale in Hong Kong must be fit for human consumption.  CFS, through the risk-based food surveillance programme, takes food samples at the import, wholesale and retail levels for chemical, microbiological and radiological testing, to ensure that the food complies with the legislative requirements and is fit for human consumption.  We will continue to keep in view of the international development of the regulatory approach of aluminium-containing food additives, and continue to review our work on the front.
 
(2) In general, CFS makes recommendations to the food trade and draws up trade guidelines as necessary, after conducting a risk assessment study.  To facilitate the trade's better understanding of these studies and listen to their views on the recommendations and guidelines, CFS normally briefs the food trade at trade consultation forums which are held regularly before announcing the finding of the studies and the recommendations.  Detailed study findings are disseminated to the public via various channels such as press releases, webpages, pamphlets and guidelines for the trade afterwards. 
 
     During the risk assessment process, if test results indicate that a food sample poses immediate threats to the public health, CFS will take suitable follow-up action and advise the public against consuming the food concerned.
 
(3) The samples collected by the Consumer Council for testing of antimicrobial resistant Enterobacteriaceae in chickens were raw chicken meat, including live chickens, freshly-slaughtered chickens, chilled and frozen chicken meat.  Microorganisms are generally present in raw food materials and in the environment.  If consumers cook raw food materials thoroughly at a suitably high temperature for a sufficiently long time, bacteria in the food can be eliminated and the food will be safe for human consumption.

     For food safety purpose, FEHD imposes licence conditions on licensed fresh provision shops and market stalls selling freshly-slaughtered chicken carcasses and offal, requiring the provision of a refrigerator or chiller of suitable capacity for the storage or display for sale of freshly-dressed poultry carcasses and offal at a temperature between 0ºC and 4ºC, in order to prevent the food from turning bad due to bacteria growth.

In addition, FEHD provides live chicken sellers with guidelines on hygiene, setting out the requirements for slaughtering, storing and handling of live chicken.
 
     CFS advises the public and the trade to observe personal, food and environmental hygiene when preparing raw and cooked food in order to prevent cross-contamination.  To minimise microbiological hazards, it is important to cook food thoroughly.
 
(4) Apart from risk analysis, the Food Surveillance Programme (the Programme) is a key component of our efforts to protect food safety at the downstream of the food supply chain.  Under the Programme, CFS collects samples at import, wholesale and retail levels for chemical, microbiological and radiological tests to ensure that food complies with the legal requirements and is fit for human consumption.  With a multiplicity of food products available in Hong Kong, it is both impossible and impractical to conduct testing on every food product.  It is also not consistent with the international practice to do so.  CFS adopts a risk-based approach in determining the types of food samples (including chicken meat and bakery products) to be collected, the frequency and number of samples taken for testing, and the types of laboratory analyses to be conducted.  The sampling programme is under regular review, taking into account factors such as past food surveillance results, food incidents occurred locally and outside Hong Kong as well as relevant risk analyses.  The Programme is finalised after being scrutinised by the Expert Committee on Food Safety each year.  In the period between January and November 2016, CFS completed testing of some 63 000 food samples.  Other than the 139 unsatisfactory samples which were announced, all remaining samples yielded satisfactory results.  The overall satisfactory rate was 99.8 per cent.  CFS will closely monitor the latest development of the food safety regulation of different places and results of local food surveillance programme, so as to review the relevant regulatory arrangements and practices where necessary.



Published on: 2017-01-11

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