LC Urgent Question: Taiwan's incident of finding plasticiser in food

     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 (June 1):


     Quite a number of food items in Taiwan have recently been found to contain carcinogenic plasticiser, and according to a study conducted by a university, 99% of the blood samples from 200 members of the public contain plasticiser, and the source of contamination may even be toys, food and other plastic products, but the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) has not included plasticiser in the regular food surveillance programme of Hong Kong.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) what measures the Government has taken in the face of this incident to prevent Taiwanese food products which have been contaminated by plasticiser from being imported into Hong Kong; and how the authorities will track and test whether the food products previously imported from Taiwan have been contaminated by plasticiser;

(b) given that plasticiser is widely used as an industrial raw material but CFS has not included it in the regular food surveillance programme of Hong Kong, and the food products imported from around the world may be contaminated by plasticiser, whether the authorities have, in respect of the process of handling imported food, established a mechanism with local governments around the world for crisis management and notification, so as to fully grasp information on food sources and prevent food products which have been contaminated by plasticiser from being imported into Hong Kong; and

(c) given the results of the aforesaid study, quite a number of members of the public are worried about the impact on their health conditions, whether the authorities will announce as soon as possible how plasticiser is being used, its impact on human body and possible ways of contamination, so that the public can make timely prevention?


Mr President,

     The Government has all along been adopting a multi-pronged approach to enhance food safety and protect public health.  In 2006, the Government established the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) as the specialised agent in the work of food safety, and to liaise with food safety authorities in the Mainland and overseas jurisdictions.  Adopting the "from farm to table" strategy, the CFS exercises control at source by requiring a health certificate for the import of high-risk food items.  It also collects around 65 000 food samples each year at import, wholesale and retail levels for testing under its food surveillance programme, covering commonly consumed food items as well as seasonal food items.  During food incidents, CFS colleagues work tirelessly to safeguard food safety.  In fact, the risk analysis work of the CFS has been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Since October 2010, the CFS has been designated as the WHO Collaborating Centre for Risk Analysis of Chemicals in Food, participating in the food contamination monitoring and assessment programme.

     Regarding Taiwan's recent incident of finding plasticiser in food, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Taiwan announced on May 23, 2011 that a plasticiser di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) had been detected in 16 samples of drinks at levels up to 34.1 parts per million (ppm).  According to the list of affected drinks published by FDA, the CFS immediately followed up and conducted inspections at the retail outlets, but could not find any relevant Taiwan sports drinks in the market.  Through the subsequent information provided by the Taiwanese authority, the CFS noted that two sports drinks ("Speed sports drink" and "Speed lemon flavour sports drink") which were produced in Taiwan and suspected to be contaminated with DEHP, had been distributed to Hong Kong.  The CFS collected six samples from various batches of the two sports drinks from the sole importer for testing at the Government Laboratory.  At that time, the company and the retailers concerned had already suspended sale and started recalling the affected products.

     Results obtained on May 30, 2011 indicated that all the six samples of the two sports drinks contained DEHP at levels ranging from 11 to 43 ppm.  Dietary exposure estimation revealed that the exposure of DEHP from the consumption of the above samples by average consumers (daily consumption of about half bottle of 600ml sports drink) and high consumers (daily consumption of about one bottle of 600ml sports drink) would exceed the safety reference value, i.e. the tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.025 mg/kg of body weight under the WHO Guidelines for drinking-water quality (also exceed the TDI of 0.05mg/kg of body weight established by the European Food Safety Authority regarding high consumers), which may pose a risk to human health.  While the acute oral toxicity of DEHP is low, DEHP was found to affect the liver and kidney as well as the reproduction and development of experimental animals.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded DEHP is possibly carcinogenic to humans.  The Director for Food and Environmental Hygiene has therefore promptly exercised the power provided under section 78B of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) and made an Order (the Order).  The Order prohibits the import of "Speed sports drink" and "Speed lemon flavour sports drink" from Taiwan with effect from noon on May 31, 2011, prohibits the supply of these drinks within Hong Kong, and also directs the trade (importer/distributor/retailer) to complete recall of the two sports drinks available in the market according to the specified manner within 30 days, unless the drinks are accompanied by a certificate issued by the relevant Taiwanese authority certifying that the levels of DEHP do not exceed 1.5 ppm.

     Apart from sports drinks, the CFS also took samples of Taiwanese food and drinks from the market for testing.  As at May 31, the CFS has collected 52 samples of five major categories of different food and drinks.  Among these samples, six samples were unsatisfactory (i.e. samples of the two aforesaid sports drinks), three passion fruit juice samples were not detected to contain DEHP, while the results of 43 samples were not yet available.  The CFS will closely monitor the situation, take samples at import, wholesale and retail levels for testing, and continue to liaise with the Taiwanese authority on the incident and take appropriate follow-up actions.

     The CFS has met with the trade over this DEHP contamination incident to learn more about their operation.  The trade was also urged to take the initiative to stop selling drinks or food suspected to be tainted with DEHP.  The CFS will issue food alerts to update the trade immediately on the latest information about the food incident provided by the Taiwanese authority, so as to keep traders abreast of the latest development.

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

(a) Since the FDA in Taiwan announced that a plasticiser DEHP had been detected in 16 samples of drinks at levels up to 34.1 ppm, the CFS has maintained close contact with the Taiwanese authority, and informed relevant importers and retailers of the lists of affected products to facilitate follow-up action.  According to information provided by and reported in Taiwan, the CFS will continue to conduct inspections at the retail outlets and take relevant samples for testing.  The CFS will strengthen testing of the following five categories of food products, including sports drinks, fruit juice, tea drinks, fruit jam and fruit syrup, as well as food products in the form of capsule, tablet or powder.  Testing results will be published in the website.  So far, according to traders, except the two aforesaid sport drinks, passion fruit tea from "Tea Time House" and "Shing Heung Chun (transliteration)" jelly announced last week, no other concerned products were sold in Hong Kong.  The CFS has also been inspecting and taking samples in the market, and has not found problem food products yet.

(b) The CFS conducts regular food surveillance based on risk and takes samples from import, wholesale and retail levels for testing.  Currently, the plasticiser DEHP is not included in CFS' regular food surveillance programme, which is similar to the practice in overseas countries.  The CFS will take into account testing and risk assessment results and report the international practice regarding DEHP surveillance to the Expert Committee on Food Safety.  After receiving the Committee's views, the CFS may adjust testing items of its regular surveillance programme.  The CFS will continue to liaise with governments in the world and to exchange information with them in order to better safeguard public health.

(c) DEHP is widely used as a plasticiser for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products.  PVC is used in various consumer products such as imitation leather, rainwear, footwear, upholstery, flooring, wire and cable, tablecloths, shower curtains, food packaging materials, medical equipment and children's toys.  DEHP may be present in food due to migration from food contact materials, or due to its widespread presence as an environmental contaminant in air, water, soil and food.  Our exposure to DEHP is mainly through water and food.  According to scientific literature, tests conducted on population in various parts of the world (e.g. USA, Germany) have detected plasticiser in blood or urine samples.  A recent research by a local university in Hong Kong also confirmed this finding.  The Department of Health is obtaining information and following up with the university regarding this on-going research project.

     Animal studies showed that DEHP underwent rapid metabolism and most of it and its metabolites would be excreted through urine and feces.  Whether there will be health consequences arising from the consumption depends on the level of DEHP in the product and the amount and duration of consumption.  Occasional excursion above the safety reference value is unlikely to cause any significant health risk provided that the average intake does not continuously exceed the safety reference value which emphasises on a lifetime exposure.

     Thank you.

Ends/Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Issued at HKT 14:31