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LCQ6: Food additives "One Drop of Incense"
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     Following is a question by the Hon Tommy Cheung and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (November 23):

Question:

     Incidents of "fake flavouring" on the Mainland have repeatedly been heard in recent years.  The relevant reports have pointed out that a number of food additives which are extensively used on the market are chemically synthesised products with unknown composition, and some of them even contain chemicals banned by the state.  Recently, some media in Hong Kong have also reported that a food additive commonly known as "One Drop of Incense" (ODI) of unknown composition, which has aroused concern in Hong Kong and on the Mainland, has already made its way into the restaurants of Hong Kong, and is used as the flavouring agent of soup products.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a)  whether it has conducted any test on the chemical composition of ODI since the media reported on the incident of ODI last year; if it has, of the results and whether ODI contains any harmful substance; if it has not conducted any test, the reasons for that;

(b)  how the authorities prevent the inflow of problematic food additives into the market of Hong Kong; whether they have followed up the matter with the authorities concerned in other places and are fully aware of the list of food additives which contain harmful substances, as well as their distribution channels and whether some of them are available in Hong Kong, etc.; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that and whether the authorities will follow up this matter with the authorities of the places concerned as soon as possible; and

(c)  when restaurants are doubtful about the safety of the food additives purchased by them, how the authorities assist in following up as well as carrying out the tests required; whether the authorities have provided timely information to members of the industry, so as to prevent them from purchasing problematic food additives; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; how they will enhance their efforts in releasing such information in future?

Reply:

President,

     The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) closely monitors about 40 food safety related websites of the Mainland and overseas government authorities, as well as international organisations on a daily basis in order to keep abreast of the latest food incidents happening in other places of the world.  It also pays close attention to related media reports and takes appropriate follow up action.  Following the media reports on the use of "One Drop of Incense" (@w) in the Mainland and in view of the public concern so generated, CFS has been keeping in view and following up the issue.  So far, CFS has not found "One Drop of Incense" available for sale locally, nor any information on the exact composition of the product.

     Restaurants in Hong Kong should ensure that food ingredients used are fit for human consumption.  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.  In addition, the food must also comply with regulations concerning food safety and food standards made under the above Ordinance, including the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations (Cap. 132H), the Sweeteners in Food Regulations (Cap. 132U) and the Preservatives in Food Regulation (Cap. 132BD).  These Regulations have listed the permitted food additives and/or the permitted levels of the specified food additives.  Any person who contravenes the above legislation is liable to a maximum fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for six months.  Moreover, if any food is suspected to be hazardous to health, CFS will take vigorous follow-up action, including research and testing, to ensure food safety.  Furthermore, the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W) under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance require that prepackaged food for sale in Hong Kong shall include in the label of ingredients the specific names or identification numbers of food additives used, and their functional classes.

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

(a)  Upon our enquiry, the concerned Mainland authority replied that "One Drop of Incense" was a hotpot flavouring agent.  Generally speaking, hotpot flavouring agents may contain vegetable oils and flavouring substances.  It was also reported in the media that the major component of "One Drop of Incense" was ethyl maltol, which could be used as a flavouring and a flavour enhancer.  In the studies on experimental animals, no adverse effects on these animals were noticed after long-term oral administration of ethyl maltol at high dose level (200mg/kg bw).  The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has evaluated the safety of ethyl maltol and opined that the normal use of ethyl maltol in food within good manufacturing practice should not pose any health risks.  JECFA also established an Acceptable Daily Intake of 0-2 mg/kg bw for ethyl maltol.  CFS has conducted risk assessment based on the media report that two samples of food taken from restaurant(s) were found to contain ethyl maltol at 7.3mg/kg and 9.2 mg/kg respectively, and found that consumption of those two food products would not cause any adverse health effects to the public.

     In response to the earlier media reports on the use of a chemical additive "One Drop of Incense" as a flavouring in soup products in local restaurants, CFS acted promptly and took a total of 10 samples (including hotpot soup bases and condensed soup) from the local market this November for chemical testing of ethyl maltol and metallic contamination, etc.  All test results were satisfactory.

     In view of the public concern over the food safety of hotpot soup products, CFS also conducted a Survey on Popular Food Items with "hotpot soup bases" as the theme earlier this year.  In the said survey, 67 hotpot soup base samples were collected from the local market for chemical tests, covering tests of metallic contamination, colouring matters, preservatives, antioxidants, etc in order to assess the food safety of hotpot soup bases.  Apart from one sample which was found unsatisfactory in respect of colouring matters, the remaining 66 samples were all found satisfactory.  CFS had taken follow-up actions on the unsatisfactory sample, including taking further samples for testing, and the result was satisfactory.

(b)  CFS has taken the initiative to make enquiries on "One Drop of Incense" with the Mainland authority concerned, which replied that the product was only available for sale in the Mainland and had not been exported to Hong Kong.  Through CFS's risk-based routine food surveillance programme, food samples are taken at import, wholesale and retail levels for chemical and microbiological testing, to ensure that the food meets the requirements of legislation and is fit for human consumption.  Up till now, CFS has not found "One Drop of Incense" available for sale locally.

(c)  Following the media reports on "One Drop of Incense", CFS has explained, in the February 2011 edition of the newsletter "Food Safety Focus", the incident to the public and the trade.  A flavouring agent is a kind of food additive and CFS will provide the trade with relevant information from time to time.  Educational materials such as leaflets and booklets are distributed by CFS through publicity channels including CFS website, periodicals, seminars and exhibitions to brief the public and the trade on various food additives and the relevant legislation.  In recent years, the CFS has also strengthened its publicity efforts by making use of its monthly e-publication "Food Safety Focus", which serves as a platform to introduce a series of articles covering holistically the safety concern of food additives like preservatives, colouring matters, sweeteners, etc.  Such information is also available for the public and the trade on the CFS website.

     Food safety is regulated by the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance and its subsidiary legislation.  Members of the trade have the responsibility to ensure that all food products for sale in Hong Kong are fit for human consumption, and they should purchase food ingredients from reliable food importers or distributors and keep abreast of local regulatory requirements on the use and labelling of food additives.  In case of doubt, they should consider seeking proof of food testing from importers or distributors or arrange testing by accredited laboratories to ensure that the food in question is fit for human consumption.

Ends/Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Issued at HKT 16:32

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