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Speech by SFH on Management System of Food Safety in Hong Kong (with photo)

    Following is the speech by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, on "Management System of Food Safety in Hong Kong" at the High Level International Food Safety Forum held in Beijing today (November 27):

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Food paradise and challenges

     I am most honoured to be invited to this International Food Safety Forum and to speak on this important and timely subject of food safety. In this session, I would like to share with you how food safety is managed in Hong Kong.

     Hong Kong is a blessed place. We are part of China and this has provided us with security of food supply, both before and after our reunification with the Mainland China in 1997. Even today, the Mainland remains the biggest supplier of food for Hong Kong. Under One Country, Two Systems, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region enjoys a high degree of autonomy, while being part of China. This means we have our own autonomy and responsibility to maintain and develop our legal, monetary, immigration and administrative systems, including the management of export, import and safety of goods and foods.  

     Translated into food safety control, such a high degree of autonomy means that it is necessary for Hong Kong to set its own food safety standards and administer its own control regimes to meet the needs and suit the tastes of this Asia's World City renowned for its gastronomical variety and supremacy.

     We take huge pride in Hong Kong being a gourmet paradise. Its streets are lined with restaurants competing for customers with their cuisines originating from every corner of the globe, from Beijing to Paris, from Tokyo to Sydney, from New York to New Delhi.  An apple on a supermarket shelf in Hong Kong may literally come from almost anywhere in the world.

     We greatly value our food variety that comes with a free port, but food safety is the priority.  Maintaining such foodstuff variety thus poses huge challenges. Hong Kong is a land of only about 1,000 square km, but it is home for seven million people.  Our agriculture sector is small. More than 95% of Hong Kong's food comes from outside Hong Kong. More than 20 million tourists have already visited Hong Kong so far this year.  And hundreds of thousand of expatriates of various ethnic origins call Hong Kong their home. These figures speak volumes about the importance of keeping food safe and maintaining a wide variety of food for everyone's enjoyment.

Overall approach

     In rising to these challenges, we are guided by the principle of transparency and priority is accorded to consumer information and protection. This is no easy task for any government in this internet age where citizens, more often than not, learn news faster than governments.  Hong Kong, free from the trade and agricultural obligations of legitimate concern to many countries, can afford to tackle this issue purely from a food safety angle and to treat all our trading partners equal.  The question is how.

     The answer is the application of the risk analysis principle promulgated by Codex Alimentarius Commission, i.e., an integration of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. The instrument is Hong Kong's Centre for Food Safety which was set up in May last year to pool government resources to tackle food safety issues head-on and to galvanise different segments of the community - the trade and consumers alike - to accord priority to food safety.

Risk assessment

     Risk cannot be eradicated altogether, ever.  But risk can be predicted and managed through assessment.  The Centre for Food Safety is constantly vigilant, monitoring food incidents of concern to Hong Kong, whether these take place locally or elsewhere in the world.  The Centre assesses, on a daily basis, the local impact of all food incidents identified, and responds instantly to minimise any impact on local health.  Particular attention is paid to food at higher risks, such as fresh meat and poultry, by requiring import licences or health certificates.  This assessment is hard science. But for the assessment to be effective, it is necessary to factor into local consumers' demand and expectations, and this goes beyond science.

Risk management and control

     This brings us to risk management and control. Hong Kong is always lauded as a place where the East meets the West and modernity blends with tradition. While each of us in Hong Kong has more than one mobile phone on average, the community clings to a traditional way of food sourcing that dates back to thousands of years ago in the long history of the Chinese nation. We like fresh produce, so much so that our folks still prefer selecting a live chicken in a wet market, having it slaughtered and taking it home to cook.  Seafood is fresh in Hong Kong only if the fish, prawns, crabs or clams are literally "alive, well and kicking". Pork and beef sells much better if it comes from pigs and cattle slaughtered on the same day.


     The Hong Kong community's penchant for fresh produce, however, poses a challenge to food safety authorities, but this is managed through an elaborate food safety system. Local chicken farms are permitted to operate in this international financial centre, but only if the strictest bio-security measures are taken, including vaccination and complete segregation of chickens from other poultry or birds. Live chickens are imported from the Mainland, with 20,000 live chickens crossing the border into Hong Kong every day.  This has not spread disease because the chickens come from designated, registered farms where, again, bio-security measures reign supreme.

     Public health is not left to chance and there is continued vigilance against avian flu risks, with random blood and faecal tests conducted at the border control points for these chickens.  Live chicken sales are stopped twice a month and during such market rest days, major clean-ups of all the chicken shops are carried out to break the cycle of viral growth. This is a measure recommended by WHO for areas prone to avian flu risk.  All of these measures have proved to be effective. Since 2003, Hong Kong has been free from avian flu outbreak despite many incidents within the Southeast Asian region.

Backyard chicken

     We cannot afford to be complacent, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of modern hygiene and tradition. Backyard chicken keeping was banned through legislation in early 2006, eliminating, once and for all, a hotbed of potential avian flu in a city environment. This caused some outcry among villagers, but we bit the bullet and put food and public safety first. With much persuasion, our community accepted the change and the Legislative Council eventually passed the legislation.

Poultry slaughtering facilities

     A central slaughtering plant for poultry is now planned in Hong Kong, to minimise human-avian contact.  This, in turn, will further reduce the risk of an avian flu outbreak. This risk management and control tool is proving a challenge to set up, I must admit. The proposal has been subject to heated debate within our community.  On returning to Hong Kong from this forum, I will be making my case to them again, to introduce a bill to get the project off the ground. But I am confident that our community will lend its support. Worldwide headlines was made in 1997 when unfortunately an avian flu outbreak took lives in Hong Kong. The community knows this simply cannot be allowed to happen again, even at the expenses of ancient tradition.

Registered farm

     Success in keeping avian flu risk at bay cannot be forthcoming without the staunch support of the authorities in Mainland China, our host today.  On this occasion, I would like to put on record our heartfelt gratitude to them, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) in particular.  We have collaborated with the Mainland authorities to ensure food safety at source. As I mentioned earlier, there are designated farms in Mainland China registered with the authorities for exporting live chickens to Hong Kong. This registered farm system now extends to all livestock, fish, vegetables, fruits and eggs. When traders bring these products to Hong Kong, they must show their health certificates or their equivalents issued by the Mainland authorities.  Regular and spot checks and inspection of these farms are conducted to ensure compliance with bio-security measures.  We have signed Memoranda of Understanding with the Ministry of Health and the AQSIQ of the Mainland on these measures and related matters.


     Technology helps a lot in food safety.  The Mainland authorities are pioneering the use of a radio frequency identification system to enable tracing of live pigs exported to Hong Kong.  This involves putting an electronic ear tag onto every live pig exported for Hong Kong's consumption.  If any health or veterinary hazards are identified in these pigs, the source can immediately be traced to the exporter and way back to the farm itself, and the relevant authorities can be informed so as to take action.

International Co-operation

     Notification also plays an important role in food safety management.  To tackle food safety issues that may have cross-boundary implications, close relationships and frequent communications with various ministries and authorities on the Mainland are maintained. Notification arrangements on food safety issues have been put in place with overseas authorities such as those in Australia, the European Union and the United States.

     A close liaison is also maintained with international partners such as WHO's International Food Safety Authorities Network, to exchange food safety information, to enable us to have prompt access to the latest information and technology worldwide, and to improve collaboration among food safety authorities at a global level.  Hong Kong taps into the best brains worldwide through the appointment of overseas food experts, as our advisers.  Where necessary, the Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety would instantly relay food risk information gathered through these channels to the community.  

     The Centre for Food Safety also contributes research data unique to our region to the WHO's Global Environmental Monitoring System - Food Contamination Monitoring and Assessment Programme (GEMS/Food) network, enriching their database for better safeguard against unsafe food.

Food surveillance

     Food surveillance is of critical importance too.  Hong Kong has adopted a risk-based approach to determining the types and number of samples to be collected for testing, and the frequency of testing.  Every year, the Centre for Food Safety takes 65,000 food samples, from the import, wholesale and retail points of the food supply chain.  The Centre has recently adopted a target-specific approach. Routine surveillance on various hazards across a wide range of food commodities is conducted.  There is also targeted surveillance of topical issues and seasonal surveillance of seasonal and festive food products.  The surveillance results are released in a timely manner for informed choices by consumers and for improvements in trade practices.

Food safety bill

     For food authorities to manage food safety effectively, a sound legislative framework is essential, and we are presently drawing up new food safety legislation.  Under the new law, there will be a mandatory registration scheme for food importers and distributors so that we will know who sells what.  The law will also require food importers and distributors to keep and produce trade records on the movement of food to enable effective food tracing, in the event of food incidents.  The new legislation will also empower the food safety authority to prohibit the import and sale of the food items, or recall of foods if they pose serious hazards to public health.  These measures will help keep the Hong Kong community safe from harmful foods.

Food standards

     Robust food safety standards also play an important role.  The existing food standards on veterinary drug residues, food preservatives and colouring matters are being reviewed, along with new standards on pesticide residues.  The goal is to ensure that there is a comprehensive and up-to-date set of food safety standards that are in line with international standards and suit the circumstances of Hong Kong.

Risk communication

     Risk, when not communicated well, can be magnified and distorted, causing false alarm and even public panic. Transparent, open and quick information is key to effective risk communication, particularly in this information-obsessed age. The public demands quick answers to questions on risk factors and risk levels. In a food scare, food authorities must tell the public if a problematic food item poses immediate risk or just potential risk, and the probability of facing such risks.

     To enable rational public responses to food incidents, food authorities must educate the public to be informed and wise consumers through releases of real-time information.  In a food incident, good use of the media and the internet is made for prompt announcement and to give consumer advice. The source of the food is traced and samples taken for testing.  Timely, accurate and user-friendly information has proven effective in preventing overreaction by the public.

     Tripartite collaboration among government, the trade and consumers is of utmost importance if we are to succeed to protect the public from unsafe food.  The food industry has a primary responsibility to ensure the food they import, handle and sell is safe, while food authorities need to avoid overbearing rules and laws.  The Hong Kong food authority works with the trade as partners during formulation of new measures, whether to regulate or facilitate the trade.

     We also call upon consumers to exercise common sense in making food choices.  Wise and responsible consumers will no doubt avoid food from unknown or dubious sources.  Illegal import of food is off-limits to them as this is no good to public health and law enforcement is strict. There is a vigorous public education programme on this too. New labeling laws enabling the consumer to make informed choices about food with additives and allergen are already in place.  Nutrients labeling is the next target to further facilitate consumer choices.


     Ladies and gentlemen, we are incessantly deluged with food incidents day in and day out. Food scares seem everywhere. But at the same time, there has never been a higher public expectation and a stronger international consensus on the need to keep food safe. Today's forum is a testament to this common wish.

     Crises always come with opportunities, and we, as food authorities, should seize the moment to strengthen international cooperation on food safety. Globalisation crosses, blurs and sometimes eliminates our boundaries in food safety. We live in the same global village, and our fate is tied and shared.

     Different food authorities react differently to food incidents, and the news reaches every corner of our global village. More often than not, the communities would over-react, causing panic and some confusion to the global villagers, and resulting in huge economic losses for both the producing and importing countries. As a city that depends on food imports for survival, Hong Kong looks forward to more common science-based international food safety standards for a wider application across the globe.  Codex clearly can play a stronger role in this aspect.

     Clearly, individual food authorities have a vital role to play too. It would also be much easier for each food authority if there were an international common platform for an electronic health certificate system enabling food tracing with laser precision.

     With such a system for realtime tracing, authorities can predict food issues before they occur, and food incidents could be resolved within hours, rather than days. Only one consignment of the food could be affected, rather than the whole trade. Only one consumer or one cluster of consumers could be affected, rather than the whole population.

     A common format and common platform for electronic health and food safety certification can greatly minimise economic, political and health damages caused by food safety incidents.  I would like to appeal to all ministers and national food authorities here to take this as our common goal.

     Hong Kong is now moving towards this direction. We are devising a set of food standards and making the best use of electronic food tracing system. We are learning from the best international practice and are more than willing to contribute to it in the strengthening of international co-operation.

     Thank you.

Ends/Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Issued at HKT 11:23


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