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LCQ1: Risk assessment studies on food additives
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     Following is a question by the Hon Andrew Cheng and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (January 26):

Question:

     In mid-2010, the media in Hong Kong and the Mainland widely reported that a food additive called "One Drop of Incense" (ODI) was found on the mainland market.  The reports stated that if ODI was chemically synthesised, it would very likely be harmful to the human body and might even contain carcinogenic substances.  The reports also pointed out that as contacts between Hong Kong and the Mainland were frequent, Hong Kong people were worried that ODI would make its way into the restaurants in Hong Kong.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether:

(a) it has found a food additive called ODI in Hong Kong;  
(b) it had conducted any study in the past three years on the health impact of the food additives used on the market; if it had, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and
(c) it will regulate the use of food additives which may be harmful to the human body; if it will, whether it will cooperate with local universities to expedite the study; if not, of the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

     The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) monitors 40 food safety related websites of the Mainland and overseas government authorities, as well as international organisations every day in order to keep abreast of the latest news of food incidents in other places of the world.  It also pays close attention to media reports on food safety issues and takes follow up action as appropriate.  My reply to the question is as follows:

(a) Since the media report of the use of "One Drop of Incense" (@w) in the Mainland, the CFS has been trying to find the product in the local market but to no avail.  Upon enquiry by the CFS, the Mainland authority concerned replied that "One Drop of Incense" was a hot pot flavouring agent, but there was no further information on the actual constituents of the product.  Usually, the constituents of a hot pot flavouring agent include vegetable oil and flavourings.  A flavouring is a concentrated mixture of flavouring substances to produce flavours.  Flavouring substances can be categorised as natural, natural identical or artificial.

     Although the CFS has not yet found "One Drop of Incense" available for sale or being used in food locally, in order to ensure local hot pot soup products are safe for consumption, the CFS collected 10 samples of hot pot soup base from local hot pot restaurants in December 2010 for chemical tests, covering metallic contamination, colouring matters, preservatives and antioxidants.  All test results were satisfactory.

     The CFS will continue to monitor the situation and carry out testing of hot pot soup products.  In January 2011, the CFS collected another 50 hot pot soup base samples for testing, with test results pending.

(b) and (c) Every year, the CFS conducts a number of food-related risk assessment studies, including studies on food additives.  Studies in recent years include those on Aluminium in Food, Dietary Exposure to Benzoic Acid from Prepackaged Non-alcoholic Beverages of Secondary School Students, Sweeteners in Confectionery Products, Risk Assessment on Artificial Sweeteners in Beverages, Risk Assessment of Lap-mei, and Use of Preservatives and Colouring Matter in Chinese New Year Foods.  The impact of food additives on public health is a regular item for review and analysis.

     On legislation, we have enacted a series of subsidiary legislation under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) focusing on certain specified food additives with reference to our risk assessment findings and the regulatory systems of overseas authorities, namely the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations, the Sweeteners in Food Regulations and the Preservatives in Food Regulation.  These Regulations have listed the permitted food additives and/or the permitted levels of the specified food additives.

     When considering whether a particular food additive should be allowed, the CFS will make reference to the results of safety evaluations carried out by international food safety authorities, such as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.   For those food additives which are evaluated as safe, the quantity used in food should follow the good manufacturing practice for public health protection.

     Furthermore, to enable consumers to obtain correct information on the kind of additives in food and their use, the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132 sub. leg. W) require prepackaged food for sale in Hong Kong to include a list of ingredients in descending order of weight or volume determined as at the time of their use when the food was packaged.  If food additives are used in food, the specific names or identification numbers of these food additives, and their functional classes should also be listed.

     Besides, the CFS pays close attention to the latest safety assessment of food additives in other countries and will review and amend local food legislation from time to time in light of the latest development in food science and technology and international standards.

     Apart from legislation, the CFS also draws up guidelines for reference by the trade (including Guidelines on the Use of Aluminium-containing Food Additives, Preservatives and Antioxidants User Guidelines, and Labelling Guidelines on Food Allergens, Food Additives and Date Format) when necessary.

     Section 54 of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) provides that all food intended for human consumption for sale in Hong Kong, whether imported or locally produced, and with or without food additives, must be fit for human consumption.  If any food is found unfit for human consumption due to the addition of any substances (including food additives), the CFS will take vigorous enforcement action.  The CFS will, under its food surveillance programme, take samples at import, wholesale and retail levels for chemical tests (including test for food additives) to assess the associated risks.

     Currently we do not have any research project involving local universities on food additives.  However, we have collaborated with them on other topics, such as the Food Consumption Survey and the Total Diet Study, which aim to gather data on the local population's consumption of various foods and to estimate their dietary exposure to a wide range of substances, including contaminants and nutrients, for assessing the health risks of these substances.

Ends/Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Issued at HKT 12:53

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