Following is a speech by the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr E K Yeoh, at the opening ceremony of Asia Pacific Consumers' Conference today (July 24):
Professor Chan, Ms Sylvan, Dr Rachagan, distinguished speakers and guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to officiate at the opening ceremony of the Asia Pacific Consumers' Conference on Food Security today. As I have just assumed responsibility for food safety upon the reorganisation of the policy bureaux in Government on July 1, the theme of this conference is of particular relevance to me.
Food Safety - General Situation
Food safety is an important public health issue in every part of the world. Every person, including you and me, is at risk to foodborne diseases, the consequence of which can be severe. Not only will they bring about direct ill health to the affected individuals, they also pose a burden to the health care system and reduce economic productivity.
Each year, about 2,000 to 3,000 persons are reported to have fallen victim to food poisoning in Hong Kong. This is likely to be only a small fraction of the actual number. Many cases of foodborne diseases occur sporadically, and even when clustering does occur, they do not always come to the attention of public health authorities. It is estimated that only about 10 per cent of food poisoning cases are reported in developed countries. This figure is even smaller in less developed areas. Moreover, these figures relate mainly to diseases due to microbiological agents. Illnesses and disability caused by chemical agents, on the other hand, are often chronic in nature and are difficult to relate precisely to particular exposure.
The task of ensuring food safety is by no means easy, but is not impossible. However, it requires the concerted effort of the Government, the food trade and consumers.
Hong Kong's food safety control system
On the part of the Government, we are committed to enhancing food safety. Our food safety control programmes have been built on a solid foundation of public education, food legislation and enforcement, import control, food surveillance and certification and food poisoning outbreak control. As a member of the World Trade Organization, the HKSAR is obliged under the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade to ensure that we do not enact food related legislation and adopt regulatory measures that would pose unnecessary barrier to trade. Hence, our food safety requirements are imposed solely on public health grounds, and take reference from health standards adopted by international food safety authorities such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
With the establishment of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department in the year 2000, we have taken the opportunity to further enhance our food control framework by drawing reference from the modern food safety control model promulgated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The traditional model recommended by WHO, dating back to the 60's, emphasised end-product inspection through food surveillance at points of import and in the market. The new model promotes a proactive approach with greater emphasis being placed on the prevention of food safety hazard at source and a risk-based strategy. It also encourages partnership, responsibility sharing and documentation among all stakeholders including the government, the food trade and consumers. The concept of a risk-based strategy is particularly important. In the contemporary world where goods flow freely and new food products are being put on the shelf every day, it is imperative that we use our resources wisely to produce the best result. Our efforts must be targeted at where the risk is highest. In line with these principles recommended by the WHO, our food safety control work can be broadly divided into three components, namely risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.
A risk-based model
Risk assessment forms the basis for the rest of the food safety control work in a risk-based model. We have a dedicated team of medical and health professionals responsible for carrying out risk assessment studies. The assessment results provide the scientific basis for decisions on what to manage and what measures to adopt in risk management. It also enables meaningful communication of real and perceived risks.
For risk management, the primary goal is to protect public health by controlling the risk as effectively as possible through the selection and implementation of appropriate measures. Risk management involves the process of weighing policy alternatives in the light of the results of risk assessment and selecting appropriate control measures, including regulatory measures, for implementation. In arriving at a decision on management of risk, human health is, of course, the primary consideration. Other secondary considerations may include economic costs, benefits, technical feasibility and risk perception.
The third leg of our risk-based model, risk communication, is no less important. Effective and efficient exchange of information reduces the chance of food incidents in ordinary times and minimises damage during crises. Thus our medical professionals and health inspectors in the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department never lose sight of the need to communicate with the public and the food trade. An example of their work in this respect is promulgating food surveillance results and risk assessment reports regularly to keep the community informed of food safety issues in Hong Kong.
I have spoken at length about our risk-based food safety control model because, firstly, it is the only meaningful way in which the Government can play its part in ensuring food safety in the contemporary world and, secondly, it is important that consumers and the food trade understand what we are doing and respond to our risk communication messages by taking appropriate precautionary measures to reduce risks on their part. Only when there is concerted effort on all fronts can we reduce risks to a minimum.
Food safety control is facing increasing challenges as technology develops and new food borne pathogens emerge. With globalisation of the food trade, no food regulatory authority can work in isolation. We have all along been monitoring international development closely, and have established a communication network with overseas food authorities and close liaison with experts in the academic field. We will continue to work hand in hand with our community to build Hong Kong into a world-class metropolis renowned for its good and safe food.
Last but not least, I would like to thank the organisers for arranging this Conference which provides an ideal forum for experts and professionals to exchange ideas and share experience. I wish you all a most fruitful discussion. Thank you.
End/Wednesday, July 24, 2002