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LCQ17: Food additives

     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Lam Tai-fai and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (June 15):


     It has been reported that a study conducted by the Department of Biology of the Baptist University has discovered that over 90% of the blood samples from 200 Hong Kong people contain plasticiser, and some academics even suspected that this was related to the recent discovery of carcinogenic additive plasticiser in Taiwanese food products and drinks and believe that long-term consumption of food products or drinks containing plasticiser by Hong Kong people has caused their blood to contain toxic substances; and the incident has greatly undermined public confidence in food products imported from Taiwan, thereby seriously affecting the business of suppliers or retailers of Taiwanese food products or drinks.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether the Government has planned to conduct a territory-wide study to find out if the blood of all Hong Kong people contain substances of toxic food additives such as plasticiser, etc.; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(b) whether it had received complaints in the past three years about food products or drinks in Hong Kong containing toxic additives; if it had, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(c) whether it had taken the initiative to conduct sample tests on food products or drinks for sale in the Hong Kong market in the past three years to ascertain if they contained toxic addictives; if it had, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(d) whether it will plan to extend the scope of testing to examine if imported food products and drinks contain plasticiser; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(e) whether it will introduce legislation to require imported food products or drinks to label the types and quantities of additives contained in the products so as to safeguard the right to know of members of the public; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(f) whether it has liaised with the Taiwanese authorities to request for the provision of more specific lists and sales information of local food products or drinks found to contain toxic additives such as plasticiser, etc.; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(g) given that the Taiwanese authorities have found that children's syrups used in clinics have also been contaminated by plasticiser, whether the SAR Government knows the market share of medicinal flavoured syrups imported directly from Taiwan, and whether the Government had conducted sample tests on such imported medicinal flavoured syrups in the past five years to ascertain if they complied with food safety requirements; if it had, of the details; if not, the reasons for that, and whether it has planned to conduct such tests;

(h) whether it has assessed the impact of this incident of Taiwanese problem food products and drinks on the business of Hong Kong suppliers of imported food products from Taiwan; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(i) whether it has planned to educate members of the public to differentiate between harmful and edible food additives and step up publicity on the impact of food additives on health; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     After the announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Taiwan on May 23 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), the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) immediately followed up and conducted inspections at retail outlets to see if the relevant Taiwanese food products were available in our market. Based on the information provided by the Taiwanese authority, the CFS has taken samples at the import, wholesale and retail levels for testing.  In the light of the test results and risk assessment, the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene, in exercise of his power under Section 78B of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132), made orders on May 30, June 1, June 8, June 9 and June 13 to prohibit the import of three specified sports drinks, one specified brand of Konjac coconut jelly, a drink premix, a mango syrup, a peach concentrated juice and fruit syrup of all flavours produced by a certain manufacturer, and prohibit the supply of these food products within Hong Kong.  The orders also directed the trade (importers/distributors/retailers) to complete the recall of these food products from the market in a specified manner within a period of 30 days, unless the products were accompanied by a certificate issued by the relevant Taiwanese authority certifying that the levels of DEHP did not exceed 1.5 ppm or the levels of di-butyl phthalate (DBP) do not exceed 0.3 ppm.

     While DEHP has low acute oral toxicity, it 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 that DEHP is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Therefore, DEHP should not be added to food. However, given that DEHP was found in Taiwanese food products, the CFS has specifically included DEHP in the surveillance for the food products concerned and take actions as appropriate to safeguard public health.

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

(a) 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. Trace amount of 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.

     At present, there are no internationally recognised testing methods and standards to determine the level of plasticisers in human body. The World Health Organization has not recommended any regional biomonitoring of the level of plasticisers such as DEHP in human body. As far as we know, testing DEHP in blood is not a common method to determine the level of plasticisers in human body, since blood DEHP level could be subject to variation due to other factors. There are also limited research studies on the use of blood samples for testing the level of DEHP in human. In some large scale regional surveys, such as the national studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States (US), urine test has been used to measure DEHP metabolites to provide reference data for scientific researches. Although animal studies showed possible health effects after long-term exposure to high dose DEHP, the US survey results showed that finding a detectable amount of DEHP metabolites in urine did not indicate an adverse health effect on human.

     According to scientific literature, plasticisers have been detected in blood or urine samples of most people in various parts of the world (e.g. US, Germany). The Administration will continue to keep abreast of the relevant local and international research results for follow-up action.

(b) In the past three years, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has recorded a total of about 1 200 complaints relating to additives in food or beverages, including non-permitted colouring matters, sweeteners or preservatives. Upon investigation by the FEHD, 52 cases were found to be substantiated. The FEHD initiated prosecutions in six cases with sufficient evidence and issued 46 warning letters to the persons involved.

(c) The use of additives in food is regulated under the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations (Cap. 132H), the Preservatives in Food Regulations (Cap. 132BD) and the Sweeteners in Food Regulations (Cap. 132U), while chemicals in food are regulated under the Harmful Substances in Food Regulations (Cap. 132AF), the Food Adulteration (Metallic Contamination) Regulations (Cap. 132V) and the Mineral Oil in Food Regulations (Cap. 132AR). Regarding those chemicals for which there are no prescribed standards, the FEHD will make reference to international standards, such as those of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, or conduct risk assessment on the level of chemicals detected in tests. In addition, 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, must be fit for human consumption.

     The CFS's routine food surveillance programme adopts a risk-based approach and samples are taken at the import, wholesale and retail levels for testing, including testing for additives regulated by law and others involved in food incidents. The CFS will adjust the testing parameters under its routine surveillance programme having regard to the testing and risk assessment results. The food surveillance projects under the programme have also been endorsed by the Expert Committee on Food Safety.

     In the past three years, under the CFS's food surveillance programme, more than 13 800 food samples have been taken for chemical testing, including testing for additives. The satisfactory rate of testing results was over 99%.  Results on unsatisfactory samples have been made known to the public.

(d) Before the adulteration of plasticisers in food was reported in Taiwan, the related chemicals were not included in our routine surveillance. At present, the targeted approach adopted by the CFS in monitoring, surveillance, sampling, testing, risk assessment, control and communication on the plasticisers has far exceeded the routine surveillance of any harmful substances in food in terms of manpower and resources deployed. These intensified actions are expected to last until such risk in food has been reduced to a reasonable level. In future, the CFS will include plasticisers in its routine surveillance programme to monitor those prepackaged food that may have used clouding agents in the manufacturing process.

(e) According to Section 2(2) of Schedule 3 to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap.132W), all prepackaged food sold in Hong Kong must be legibly marked or labelled to provide the relevant information, such as the name, the list of ingredients, the durability, and the count, weight or volume of the food.

     According to the above Regulations, the ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight or volume determined as at the time of their use when the food was packaged. An additive constituting one of the ingredients of a food must be listed by its functional class and (a) its specific name; or (b) its identification number under the International Numbering System for Food Additives; or (c) its identification number under the International Numbering System for Food Additives with the prefix "E" or "e".

(f) Since the onset of the incident, the CFS has been maintaining close liaison with the Taiwanese authority and a contact person has been assigned specifically for the incident to facilitate exchange of the latest information.  Furthermore, the CFS has maintained close liaison and met with the trade in Hong Kong to keep them informed of the latest development in Taiwan and urge them to take the initiative to suspend the sale of any drinks or food items that might be affected by plasticisers and notify the CFS accordingly.

     The CFS will take immediate action upon receipt of information concerning the food affected. If any food product is found to be tainted with plasticisers, the CFS will, in accordance with the existing legislation, prohibit the import and supply of the food product concerned in Hong Kong and require the trade to recall and dispose of the food product concerned as soon as possible and publicise the information.

(g) Flavouring agents are not categorised as pharmaceutical products. However, the addition of flavouring agents during the drug manufacturing process should meet the requirements in relation to safety and quality standards of the "Good Manufacturing Practice".  At the initial stage of the plasticiser incident in Taiwan, the Department of Health had immediately reminded the healthcare professionals in writing that only the flavouring agents under pharmacopoeial requirements were to be used in preparing drugs. According to the pharmacopoeia, plasticisers shall not be added to flavouring agents as ingredients. Should any flavouring agents from Taiwan be added to orally consumed drugs, importers should prove that the drugs are free from DEHP or Diisononyl phthalate (DINP).

(h) In 2010, Taiwan was Hong Kong's fourth largest trading partner, with total bilateral trade amounting to $293.4 billion, amongst which the value of imports was $224.8 billion.  According to the statistics in 2010, the value of fruit juices, fruit jam/syrup, tea beverages, and edible products and preparations imported from Taiwan was about $455 million, which accounted only for 0.2% of total imports from Taiwan. As a wide range of food and beverage items may be affected by the incident in question, it is difficult for us to assess the impact on the trade flows between Hong Kong and Taiwan at this stage. However, since Taiwan is not Hong Kong's main source of food and beverages imports, we believe that the impact of the incident on the trade between Hong Kong and Taiwan is limited.

     After the incident, the Administration has contacted major trade and industrial organisations to understand the impact of the incident on the food and catering trade.  Some restaurants and beverage retailers (including those which mainly sell Taiwanese snacks and drinks) said that the incident had affected their business to a certain extent. Separately, the operating cost of food suppliers was said to have increased because some retailers required them to produce proof that their products (irrespective of whether they were of Taiwan origin) did not contain any plasticiser.

     The Administration will continue to liaise with the trade and monitor the latest development closely, and provide support to the trade as appropriate.

(i) Educating members of the public to differentiate between harmful and edible food additives and enhancing their awareness of food hazards have formed a crucial part of the CFS's routine education programmes. Through educational materials such as leaflets, booklets as well as publicity channels such as CFS website, periodicals, seminars and exhibitions, the CFS has introduced to members of the public various food additives and taught them to read food labels for the presence of additives. In recent years, the CFS has also strengthened its publicity efforts by launching a monthly e-publication "Food Safety Focus", which serves as a platform to introduce topics that cover holistically the safety concern of food additives like preservatives, colouring matters and sweeteners, etc. Such information is available on the following website: .

     In light of the recent public concern over food additives, the CFS will take a more proactive approach in its publicity and education efforts, with a view to enhancing public understanding of the issue.

Ends/Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Issued at HKT 14:58


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