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LCQ18: Sulphur dioxide in food

     Following is a question by the Hon Andew Cheng and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legisative Council today (December 17):


     According to the Preservatives in Food Regulations (Cap. 132 sub. leg. BD), which govern the amount of sulphur dioxide allowed in different categories of food, the sale of fresh, chilled or frozen meat containing sulphur dioxide is an offence. However, it has recently been reported that beef containing sulphur dioxide is prevalent in the market. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) had regularly taken samples of fresh beef and food items other than meat for sulphur dioxide testing over the past three years; if it had, of the respective numbers of the two kinds of samples taken and, among them, those found to contain sulphur dioxide exceeding the statutory permitted levels, as well as the relevant details;

(b) of the number of traders convicted in the past three years for breaching the above provision, as well as the penalties imposed on them, and whether it will consider raising the penalties to enhance the deterrent effect; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(c) whether FEHD will make public the names and locations of the shops found to be selling beef containing sulphur dioxide for reference by the public; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



(a) Sulphur dioxide is used in the food manufacturing industry as a preservative in a variety of foods, including preserved fruits and fruit juices. As sulphur dioxide is water soluble, most of it can be removed through washing and cooking. While sulphur dioxide is of low toxicity, people who are allergic to it may experience respiratory discomfort, headaches and nausea. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation, there is inadequate evidence that sulphur dioxide can cause cancer.

     The Administration has always been concerned about the illegal use of sulphur dioxide by meat traders. Fresh provision shops as well as market stalls selling meat are subject to regular inspections to monitor the source and safety of meat on sale. The Food Surveillance Programme implemented by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) is designed to control and prevent food hazards. Food samples are taken at import, wholesale and retail levels for microbiological and chemical testings.

     The Food Surveillance Programme covers sample testing of meat from retail outlets for sulphur dioxide. Apart from including the testing of sulphur dioxide in meat in the routine surveillance programme, targeted surveillance projects focusing on this specific issue were also conducted in the past two years. The latest targeted surveillance for assessing the use of sulphur dioxide in meat was conducted from July to September 2008, with the results announced in early October. In the exercise, some 290 pork and beef samples were collected for tests, among which 15 beef samples and four pork samples were found to contain sulphur dioxide, at levels ranging from 10 ppm to 2,100 ppm. Test results for sulphur dioxide in meat samples for the past three years under the Food Surveillance Programme are listed in the Annex.

     The number of food samples (other than meat) collected under the Food Surveillance Programme for testing of sulphur dioxide in 2006, 2007 and from January to September 2008 were about 920, 2,000 and 940 respectively. Of these samples, nine in 2006, 52 in 2007 and eight in 2008 from January to September (including dried vegetables, dried fruits, etc.) were found to contain sulphur dioxide that was either illegally added or in excessive amount.

(b) Under the Preservatives in Food Regulation, sulphur dioxide is permitted to be used in some food products, such as preserved fruits, fruit juices, wine, etc. The Regulation also governs the maximum permitted level of sulphur dioxide allowed in specified food products. However, sulphur dioxide is not permitted to be used in fresh, chilled or frozen meat.  Offenders are liable to a maximum fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for six months upon conviction. The FEHD would take follow-up actions regarding all the unsatisfactory results, including testing further samples, issuing warning letters to the shop operators concerned and taking out prosecutions if there is sufficient evidence. From 2006 to September 2008, a total of 50 prosecutions in relation to the use of sulphur dioxide (35 involving meat and 15 involving other food products) were instituted. Among them, 43 cases were heard and the shop operators concerned were fined $1,300 to $10,000.

     The existing penalties for illegal use of preservatives (including sulphur dioxide) in food are comparable to those for illegal use of other additives (such as colouring matters and sweeteners) in food, and are the same as those set out in the legislation governing food standards (such as harmful substances and heavy metals). The Government has no intention of increasing the penalties at this stage.

(c) The Administration has been keeping a close watch on the market situation and conducting routine surveillance in relation to the illegal use of sulphur dioxide in meat. Legal action will be taken against retail outlets with sulphur dioxide found in the samples collected. If convicted, other appropriate sanctions in accordance with the existing policies of suspension / cancellation of licences or termination of tenancies applicable to food premises and market stalls will be applied. The Centre for Food Safety publishes unsatisfactory test results under the Food Surveillance Programme on a regular basis. The Centre has also disclosed the name and address of the retail outlets that sell unsatisfactory samples in the past.

Ends/Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Issued at HKT 12:51


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