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LCQ19: Safety regulation on vegetables
     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Kwok Ka-ki and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, in the Legislative Council today (May 10):

     Currently, vegetables imported to Hong Kong from the Mainland must come from registered vegetables farms or collection stations on the Mainland.  When the vegetables reach Man Kam To, the Food Control Office established there by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will inspect documents and collect samples for testing of pesticide residues.  Most of the vegetables will subsequently be transported to the Cheung Sha Wan Wholesale Vegetable Market of the Vegetable Marketing Organisation (VMO) for centralised wholesaling.  However, it has been reported that recently some merchants have distributed vegetables directly to retail outlets for sale immediately after importing them from the Mainland (such vegetables are commonly known as directly distributed vegetables).  Although the selling prices of directly distributed vegetables are substantially lower than those of ordinary vegetables, some members of the public are worried about their suitability for consumption.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the respective numbers and percentages, in each of the past five years, of vegetable importers, wholesalers and retailers who were engaged in the trading of directly distributed vegetables;

(2) of the respective quantities and percentages of directly distributed vegetables among the various kinds of vegetables imported to Hong Kong (including winter vegetables, summer vegetables, leafy, gourd, fruit, root and rhizome, bean, herbs, mushroom and others) in each of the past five years;

(3) in each of the past five years, of (i) the number of vegetable samples taken by the authorities for inspection and testing, (ii) the number of samples found to be unsatisfactory (as well as the reasons for the unsatisfactory result), and (iii) the number of cases of poisoning due to consumption of vegetables with excessive pesticide residues; among such numbers, the respective numbers related to directly distributed vegetables and their percentages in the relevant totals;
(4) whether it has assessed if directly distributed vegetables are suitable for consumption; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; of the measures in place to address the public concerns about the consumption safety of directly distributed vegetables; and

(5) whether it has studied if the prevalence of directly distributed vegetables in the market reveals that there are loopholes in the Food Surveillance Programme (the Programme); if it has studied and the outcome is in the affirmative, whether the authorities will take measures to include directly distributed vegetables in the Programme, e.g. requiring that all vegetables supplied by the Mainland to Hong Kong must be distributed through VMO; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     Hong Kong is a free market.  All along, imported vegetables may either be distributed through wholesale markets (including the wholesale markets operated by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), the Cheung Sha Wan Vegetable Marketing Organisation (VMO) or other private wholesalers) or sold directly at retail outlets (direct sale).  According to the information from the Census and Statistics Department, there were about 850 000 tonnes of imported vegetables in 2016.  According to the information from AFCD, about 340 000 tonnes of vegetables were transacted through the wholesale markets operated by AFCD and the VMO in 2016.

     Whether vegetables are distributed through wholesalers is not relevant to safeguarding food safety.  Wholesale markets primarily provide a trading platform for importers and retailers to facilitate business.  All vegetables sold in Hong Kong for human consumption, regardless of whether the vegetables are distributed through the wholesale markets operated by AFCD or the VMO, are subject to local food safety regulatory mechanism.  The details are as follows.
     The Mainland is the major source of imported vegetables to Hong Kong.  From the perspective of controlling at source, the Government and the regulatory authorities in the Mainland have established administrative arrangements.  Vegetables supplied to Hong Kong from the Mainland must come from registered vegetable farms and production and processing establishments under the supervision of the respective Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, must be accompanied with supporting documents to ensure food safety, and must be affixed with labels which show the information on their origins on the packaging during transport.  All fresh vegetables entering Hong Kong via the land route must be imported through Man Kam To Border Control Point as designated.  The Mainland inspection and quarantine authorities conduct random inspection on the seal and documents of the vegetables to be supplied to Hong Kong, and conduct testing on vegetable samples.  Only consignments which come with intact seals and satisfy the inspection requirements are allowed to enter Hong Kong.  Staff of the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department inspect registered farms on the Mainland every year to ensure that the agricultural products supplied to Hong Kong are wholesome and safe at source.

     CFS staff inspect the vehicles which carry the vegetables when the latter arrive at the Man Kam To Food Control Office.  They check if the seal on the vehicle remains intact and whether the consignment tallies with the accompanying documents, inspect the vegetables, and adopt a risk-based approach in taking vegetable samples for quick tests for pesticide residues and comprehensive chemical analysis.  CFS maintains close communication and co-operation with the Mainland authorities and exchanges intelligence with them. 
     Apart from controlling at source and the import arrangements, CFS adopts a risk-based principle in taking food samples at the import, wholesale and retail levels for relevant tests under the regular Food Surveillance Programme to ensure that the food comply with the legal requirements and are fit for human consumption.  The regular Food Surveillance Programme covers vegetables, regardless of whether the vegetables are distributed through wholesalers or are for direct sale.
     CFS takes follow-up actions on unsatisfactory samples, including destroying the vegetables, tracing the source, recording the information of the farm and inform the relevant Mainland authorities for follow-up.  CFS staff will detain the next vegetable consignment from the farm concerned and will release the consignment only when the testing results are satisfactory. 
     The Government is mindful that vegetables are brought, in the name of self-consumption, into Hong Kong by travellers via the Lo Wu Control Point for sale in the market.  In fact, CFS maintains close liaison with the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) and exchanges intelligence on activities of importing vegetables through control points other than the Man Kam To Food Control Office.  To intercept such activities, C&ED and CFS conduct joint operations from time to time.  If travellers are found to have brought into Hong Kong a substantial amount of vegetables which are suspected not to be of self-consumption, C&ED will refer the cases to CFS for follow-up action.  From January 2015 to December 2016, C&ED referred 26 cases of travellers carrying a substantial amount of vegetables into Hong Kong via the Lo Wu Control Point to CFS.  After intelligence gathering and investigation, it was evident that in three cases the vegetables were brought into Hong Kong for sale.  CFS had initiated prosecutions against the persons concerned for not registering as food importers under the Food Safety Ordinance (Cap. 612).  As for the other 23 cases, no sufficient evidence of sale could be found.  Nonetheless, the travellers concerned voluntarily surrendered the vegetables to CFS for disposal.  CFS destroyed about 0.7 tonnes of the vegetables.
     In the past five years (i.e. 2012-2016), the number of vegetables and related products tested for pesticide residues under the Food Surveillance Programme of CFS and the number of unsatisfactory samples are tabulated below:
Year Number of vegetables and related products tested for pesticide residues Number of unsatisfactory samples
2012 18 255 2
2013 18 858 2
2014 18 344 35
2015 19 028 78
2016 19 529 42
Total 94 014 159#

#   The samples exceeded the maximum residue limits / extraneous maximum residue limits (note) stipulated in the Pesticide Residues in Food Regulation (Cap. 132CM) or were regarded as unsatisfactory after risk assessment.

     The Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health has not recorded any food poisoning cases caused by consuming foods with excessive pesticide residues in the past five years (i.e. 2012 to 2016).

Note: According to the Pesticide Residues in Food Regulation (Cap. 132CM) (the Regulation), any person who imports, manufactures or sells any food not in compliance with the requirements of the Regulation concerning pesticide residues commits an offence and is liable to a maximum fine of $50,000 and to imprisonment for six months.
Ends/Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Issued at HKT 16:07
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