LCQ3: Radiation levels of Japanese food products

     Following is a question by the Hon Wong Yung-kan and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (December 21):


     It has been reported that earlier on, a Japanese food company carried out sample tests on its infant formulas and found that some of them contained radioactive substances, namely cesium-134 and cesium-137, and the company decided to recall 400,000 tins of the affected infant formulas, while some supermarkets in Hong Kong removed all batches of this brand of infant formulas from the shelves and stopped selling them right away.  Since the Centre for Food Safety has not immediately clarified whether the affected batches had been imported to Hong Kong, parents do not know whether they should stop feeding their babies with the formulas concerned at once.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that the problem of some food products in Japan being contaminated by radioactivity has arisen after the nuclear power plant incident in Fukushima, of the number of tests which have been carried out by the authorities on all infant formulas imported from Japan (including parallel imports and authorised products) since the outbreak of the incident; the test results; the safety standards adopted by the Government at present in the tests and in the safety assessments made on Japanese infant formulas;

(b) given that some Japanese infant formulas were tested and found to contain radioactive substances, whether the authorities will consider stepping up testing and sample checking on all imported Japanese food products and regularly publishing the radioactivity levels of such food products; and

(c) whether the Centre for Food Safety of Hong Kong will be notified immediately and obtain relevant test results when imported Japanese food products are found by the Japanese authorities to contain radioactive substances; whether the authorities have any plan to set up a reporting mechanism in respect of food safety incidents with the Japanese authorities, so as to enhance the exchange of information between both sides?


Acting President,

     A milk powder manufacturer in Japan announced on December 6, 2011 that radioactive substances were found in some of its milk powder products.  Accordingly, it voluntarily recalled the relevant batches of products.  The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) took immediate action on the same day and made enquiries with the Japanese authorities and the local trade for more information.  At a meeting on December 7, 2011, CFS confirmed with a number of local importers/distributors of Japanese milk powder that the relevant batches of products had not been put on sale in the local market.  While an importer had imported a consignment of the affected batch, the whole consignment did not enter the local market as it was still pending testing.  The importer is arranging to return the consignment back to the manufacturer.  CFS issued a press release on December 6 and 7, 2011 respectively to announce the progress of the investigation and follow-up actions. Furthermore, CFS has deployed staff to inspect local retail outlets and so far, has not found the relevant batches of products being put on sale.  CFS will continue to closely monitor the situation and follow up.

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

(a) We have always been paying attention to the safety of food imported from Japan.  Since March 12, 2011, ie the day of the nuclear plant incident, CFS has stepped up regulatory control of food products imported from Japan, which includes testing of radiation levels of every consignment of food products (including milk powder) imported by sea or air from Japan.  As of December 12, 2011, 146 samples of Japanese milk powder had been tested by CFS and none was found to contain radioactive substances.

     As regards the testing standards, CFS adopts the Guideline Levels for Radionuclides in Foods Contaminated Following a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency (Guideline Levels) laid down by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) (ie iodine-131: 100 Bq/kg, caesium-134 and caesium-137: 1,000 Bq/kg), to step up testing of radiation levels of food products (including milk powder) imported from Japan.  According to Codex, when radionuclide levels in food do not exceed the corresponding Guideline Levels, the food could be considered as safe for human consumption.

     On December 7, 2011, CFS briefed the Expert Committee on Food Safety (Expert Committee) on its follow-up actions on the issue.  The Expert Committee, which comprises food experts from the Mainland and overseas as well as local experts, agreed that Hong Kong should continue to adopt the Codex Guideline Levels as standards for testing of radiation levels of Japan-manufactured milk powder.  The Guideline Levels of caesium-134 and caesium-137 for infant foods and other foods are both 1,000 Bq/kg.

     The radiation levels detected in the milk powder concerned were very low.  CFS conducted a risk assessment on the milk powder sample with the highest levels of radiation and found that the radiation dose from the normal consumption of the contaminated product by an nine-month-old infant for a prolonged period (one year) was approximately 0.04 millisievert (mSv), which was equal to the radiation dose received from less than one chest X-ray or 1/200 computed tomography scan (CT scan).  The dosage is unlikely to cause any adverse health effects.

(b) Since March 12, 2011, ie the day of the nuclear plant incident, CFS has been taking samples from every consignment of food products (including milk powder) from Japan for testing of radiation levels.  If the food concerned is found to contain radionuclides exceeding the Guideline Levels, CFS will immediately mark and seal that consignment and arrange for disposal.

     To date, over 58,000 samples of Japanese food products collected at import, wholesale and retail levels had been tested.  Among them, only three samples of vegetables imported from Chiba prefecture on March 22, 2011 were detected to contain radioactive substances at levels exceeding the Guideline Levels.  The test results of all the remaining samples were satisfactory (including 146 samples of milk powder imported from Japan).

     As the radiation levels of the above three samples of vegetables were found to have exceeded the Guideline Levels, to safeguard food safety and public health, the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene made an order on March 23, 2011 to prohibit the import of fresh food (including milk, dried milk and dairy products) from five prefectures in Japan, namely Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Chiba and Gunma.

     The Fukushima nuclear incident is yet to be fully under control and the radiation fallout following the release of some radioactive substances with long half-lives like caesium could remain in the environment for years, which will continue to pose threats to food safety.  The order prohibiting the import of fresh food from the five affected prefectures in Japan will remain in force.  For other food products imported from the said five prefectures and food products from other prefectures, CFS will continue taking samples from every consignment of food products for testing.  Based on the local surveillance results and those in Japan and other places, CFS will decide the sample size of each consignment according to the risk assessment.  Milk powder and other milk products will continue to be under 100% surveillance.  CFS will also continue to liaise with relevant Japanese authorities to keep abreast of the latest development of the Japan nuclear incident and take appropriate follow up actions.  The surveillance result of food imported from Japan will continue to be posted on the CFS website at daily.  In addition to unsatisfactory food samples, satisfactory samples found to contain low radioactivity will also be announced.

(c) CFS has been in close contact with the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong to exchange information on the nuclear incident in Japan.  Following the detection of radioactive substances in milk powder in Japan, CFS approached the Japanese authorities on December 6, 2011 for more information.  To safeguard food safety in Hong Kong, CFS will closely monitor information from Japan as well as the radiation testing results of Japanese food products in Hong Kong and elsewhere.  Making reference to the recommendations of international authorities including the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency, CFS will review and adjust if necessary, the surveillance strategy on food products imported from Japan, in a timely manner.

Ends/Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Issued at HKT 17:12