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LC Urgent Q1: Food products imported from Japan

     Following is a question by Hon Alan Leong under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (March 16):


     Given that after the occurrence of the most serious earthquake ever recorded in Japan, there were successive explosions at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, some members of the public in Hong Kong are worried that food products imported from Japan will be contaminated by radiation.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the types of food products currently imported into Hong Kong which come from areas that may be exposed to radiation and the quantities imported each day;

(b) given that the Secretary for Food and Health (SFH) indicated on March 14 that the Centre for Food Safety had carried out tests on fresh food products imported from Japan, whether the authorities can clarify the criteria adopted at present in testing the level of radioactive contamination in Japanese food products, as well as the measures to be adopted by the authorities when some food products are found to have a level of radioactive contamination exceeding the normal standard; and

(c) given that SFH indicated on March 14 that he would closely monitor food products imported from Japan, such as details of their places of origin, the time of departure from the farms, etc., regarding the importation procedures for the food products mentioned above, whether the authorities and the Japanese Government have established crisis management and reporting mechanisms, so as to obtain full information on the sources of food products imported into Hong Kong and prevent food products which have been contaminated by radiation from being imported into Hong Kong; if they have, of the details; if not, the channels through which the authorities will receive the relevant information?



     Japan has just suffered from the most serious earthquake ever recorded in the country and a series of explosions at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima.  We feel sorry for the significant human loss and devastation caused.  The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government would like to offer our deep sympathy and regards to the people and Government of Japan.  We are prepared to offer all necessary assistance when required.

     In Hong Kong, some members of the public are concerned that food products imported from Japan might have been contaminated by radiation.  The Government is responsible for monitoring the food safety in Hong Kong and will release the results of our surveillance programme in a highly transparent manner so as to relieve public concern.

     Radioactive material can affect our body through three ways, including (a) direct radiation; (b) through skin contact with and breathing in the contaminated air; and (c) through consuming the contaminated food and water.    

     If radioactive fission products are released into the atmosphere, some of the gaseous and volatile radioactive isotopes could be carried by wind.  The invisible radioactive material would behave in a way similar to a plume or cloud of smoke dispersing into the atmosphere, with some of its contents deposited onto the ground.  The concentration of radioactive materials in the plume decreases as they move further away from the relevant site.  Through the Plume Exposure Pathway, an individual could be radiologically contaminated from direct exposure to radiation emitted by airborne and deposited material, or from internal exposure by inhalation of airborne material.

     When radioactive substances in the plume are deposited on plants, soil or water, they might enter the food chain.  In the first instance, plants and animals could become surface contaminated and tissue contamination could occur after inhalation or after intake or ingestion of radiologically contaminated nutrients (animals eating a large quantity of contaminated items can concentrate radioactivity in their tissues).  This tissue contamination will reduce over time.  While surface contamination can be largely removed by washing, tissue contamination cannot be so removed.

     People can ingest the substances directly, or indirectly through eating the products of animals (including fish) which have themselves eaten contaminated substances.  Through this Ingestion Pathway, people may still become radiologically contaminated even they are not living in areas under the plume or after a lengthy period of time from the incident by consuming radiologically contaminated foodstuffs.

     So long as the level of contamination does not exceed a certain level, people consuming these contaminated foodstuffs will unlikely experience either short-term or long-term ill-effects.  The most important consideration is the total radiation dose from consuming radiologically contaminated foodstuffs (including water).  The impact of radiation on human health depends on its intensity, the length of exposure, the type of radiation and the kind of body cells exposed.

     As a matter of fact, naturally occurring radioactivity is common in the environment. Our body metabolic processes can often repair any potential damage caused by low levels of radiation exposures.  In a nuclear power plant accident, the general population is not likely to be exposed to high radiation doses.  The consumption of radioactively contaminated foodstuffs may result in long-term effects such as an increased risk of cancer in exposed persons.  In general, foodstuffs available on markets are unlikely to be contaminated with very high levels of radioactive substances after a nuclear emergency.   Therefore, the chance of acute health effect is unlikely.

     In response to the nuclear plant explosions after the earthquake in Japan, the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) has, since March 12 (the day of the nuclear incident), stepped up surveillance and has tested the radiation level of fresh food imported from Japan, including vegetables, fruits, and milk.  CFS currently adopts the standards laid down by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in the Guidelines Levels for Radionuclides in Food following Accidental Nuclear Contamination in testing the radiation levels of food.   To ensure the food from Japan is free from contamination, CFS concentrates the surveillance on fresh food items, especially those from the central part of Honshu.  For other food items, CFS will make reference to the risk assessment and target those produced after the explosions of the nuclear plants and which stand a higher risk of contamination.  CFS will continue to monitor closely the food imported from Japan in the near future.  If the place of origin or the time of production is linked to the incident, CFS will test the radiation level of these food items to ensure they are not contaminated.

     CFS has liaised with the relevant Japanese authority for information and will continue to monitor the latest developments.

     The reply to the three parts of question is as follows:

(a) Currently, the food from Japan only constitutes a small part of our total imports.  Imported fresh food from Japan consisted mainly of meat, aquatic products, milk, frozen confections, vegetables and fruit.  The total import of the above foodstuffs amounted to 380 tonnes in 2010, with market shares ranging from below 1% (e.g. vegetables and fruits) to 5% (e.g. meat, milk and frozen confections).  Import of poultry and poultry eggs from Japan has been suspended since the outbreak of avian influenza last year.

     As of present, the Japanese Government has not been able to delineate the area affected by radiation contamination.  CFS has, since March 12, stepped up surveillance on Japanese fresh food imported by air, testing the radiation level for each consignment.  As at 5pm yesterday (March 15), 34 samples have been tested and all results were satisfactory.  None of these samples was consigned from Sendai or Fukushima.

(b) CFS currently adopts the standards laid down by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in the Guidelines Levels for Radionuclides in Food following Accidental Nuclear Contamination in testing the radiation levels of food.  Relevant radionuclides include iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137, etc, which are most closely associated with health risks.

     If a consignment of food is tested to have exceeded the contamination standard, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will immediately detain that consignment and arrange for disposal.

(c) Since the nuclear plant explosion in Fukushima, CFS has been in close contact with the Consulate-General of Japan in order to obtain more information and has kept a close eye on the developments in the relevant areas.  As the situation in Japan is still developing, CFS will continue to liaise with the relevant Japanese authority to keep abreast of the latest development.  Announcements will be made as and when appropriate.

Ends/Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Issued at HKT 16:11


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