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LCQ14: Regulation of organic food

     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Chiang Lai-wan and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, in the Legislative Council today (May 11):


     The Consumer Council (CC) published in March this year the results of a major test on vegetables.  Of the 75 samples claimed to be organic vegetables, 28, or more than one-third, contained pesticide residues.  One sample of purple sweet potato was found to contain chlorpyrifos, a pesticide, at a level of 0.07 mg/kg, which had exceeded the statutory maximum residue limit (i.e. 0.05 mg/kg).  Besides, a white cabbage sample was found to contain 0.06 mg/kg of lead.  Some members of the public have pointed out that the aforesaid test results have reflected that there are potential food safety risks associated with organic produce, and public health is therefore not adequately safeguarded.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1)  as it has been reported that the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC) found after a survey that some vegetable stalls had displayed HKORC organic certification seals without its permission and some traders had displayed invalid certificates of organic certification, in order to sell non-organic vegetables disguised as higher-priced organic vegetables, whether the authorities will step up efforts to combat the abuse of these certification seals and certificates; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2)  as some members of the public have pointed out that "organic food" is not defined under the existing legislation and the certification system for organic produce also lacks transparency, whether the authorities will consider reviewing the relevant legislation to regulate the planting, certification and marketing systems in respect of organic produce; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3)  as CC has recognised that there is room to tighten the maximum permitted concentration of lead in food and suggested that the authorities should refer to relevant legislation on metal contents in food in various places in the world and consider amending the legislation of Hong Kong to enhance food safety, whether the authorities will consider such suggestion; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     The Government has attached great importance to food safety, regardless of whether the food concerned is organic or not.  The Government adopts the World Health Organization's "from farm to table" strategy to safeguard food safety in Hong Kong.  A total of about 64 300 food samples were tested in 2015 under the Government's Food Surveillance Programme.  The overall satisfactory rate was 99.7%.

     All food for sale in Hong Kong, whether organic or not, are governed by the same set of food safety standards and labelling requirements.  The Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) stipulates that all food for sale in Hong Kong must be fit for human consumption and food labels should not be misleading or falsely describe the food.  Such food is also regulated by relevant food safety standards, such as those provided in the Pesticide Residues in Food Regulation (Cap. 132CM) and the Food Adulteration (Metallic Contamination) Regulations (Cap. 132V).  On trade description, any person who, in the course of any trade or business, applies a false trade description to any goods, or supplies or offers to supply any goods to which a false trade description is applied is subject to the penalties stipulated in the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap. 362).  This ordinance also prohibits any person from having in his possession for sale or for any purpose of trade or manufacture any goods to which a false trade description is applied.  

     According to the survey findings released by the Consumer Council recently, among the 127 vegetable samples tested for levels of pesticide residues and heavy metals, 75 were claimed to be organic vegetables.  The survey findings showed that one sample of sweet potato claimed to be organic contained a pesticide residue exceeding the limit stipulated in the Pesticide Residues in Food Regulation (Cap. 132CM), while all other samples were found to be in compliance with the law.  According to the assessment of the Centre for Food Safety (CFS), based on the level of the pesticide residue detected in the sample, adverse health effects would not be caused under normal consumption.  The CFS is following up the case referred by the Consumer Council.  Relevant enforcement agencies will take appropriate actions if any person is suspected of selling agricultural products falsely claimed to be organic.
     My reply to the question of the Dr Hon Chiang is as follows:

(1)  Any person who makes false or misleading statements in respect of the food (including organic food) he supplies to mislead consumers commits an offence of false trade descriptions.  The Customs and Excise Department may take enforcement actions according to the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap. 362).  Besides, the CFS can also take corresponding actions under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132).

     Apart from enforcement actions, regular surveillance, promotion of organic food labelling and public education are also of great importance.  Through its regular Food Surveillance Programme, the CFS continues to adopt a risk-based approach for testing food samples (including vegetables) taken at the import, wholesale and retail levels to ensure their compliance with the legal requirements in Hong Kong and fitness for human consumption.

     On promoting organic food labeling, with funding from the Agricultural Development Fund under the Vegetable Marketing Organisation (VMO), the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC) has started to provide certification service for farmers since December 2002.  Farmers can use the certification service on a voluntary basis.  The HKORC has established a set of stringent guidelines with reference to international standards, i.e., guidelines of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, with a view to ensuring that the process adopted by organic farms complies with the certification standards of organic farming and production.  Certified farms can attach the label of the certification body to their products for easy identification.  Currently, more than 140 units have been certified, covering products such as vegetables, cultured fish and other processed food.  The HKORC also conducts regular surveys to monitor the market situation.

     Regarding public education, the CFS provides information on organic food to the public through its publicity leaflets, publications and website.  The HKORC also organises various kinds of activities every year to introduce recognised certification labels to the public and to encourage them to read the organic certificates of vegetable outlets carefully, make purchase at reputable shops and buy vegetables with organic certification.  Besides, the VMO and the HKORC also provide on their websites information on local organic food, such as details of outlets for local organic vegetables.

(2)  The Government understands the need of the local market for organic food and has studied the issue.  It has commissioned a consultancy study on organic food earlier to assess whether the production and sale of organic food in Hong Kong should be regulated.  In view of the small market size of the local organic food sector and the fact that the main policy objectives of the Government are to ensure food safety and stable food supply, the consultant found no pressing need to regulate the production and sale of local organic food.  The consultant has recommended that the Government should enhance consumer education, increase consumers' knowledge of organic food and strengthen the existing administrative measures, such as further promoting the certification schemes, streamlining the certification procedures and promulgating a reporting mechanism of food fraud (including false claim of organic food).  The study findings were reported to the Legislative Council (LegCo) Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene (FSEH Panel) in 2013.  The Government has already enhanced consumer education about organic food, and welcomes the industry to continue its efforts in promoting organic food labelling.  It also encourages consumers to learn more about the certification labels issued by organic food certification bodies.  The Government's stance is to step up the work in these aspects, rather than using legislative means.  It will continue to keep in view the latest international development on the regulation of organic food and review the local circumstances and needs from time to time.

(3)  The Food Adulteration (Metallic Contamination) Regulations (Cap. 132V) (the Regulations) regulate the level of metallic contaminants in food.  To better protect public health, facilitate effective regulation and align local and international standards, the Food and Health Bureau and the CFS have embarked on the preparatory work to review and amend the Regulations.  The CFS has set up a working group under the Expert Committee on Food Safety to solicit views on the proposed legislative amendments.  The current review aims to formulate proposals for amendments to the Regulations with reference to the standards of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (note), standards set by different national authorities as well as local food consumption pattern.  The CFS is now working out details of the proposed legislative amendments.  Subject to the deliberations of the Expert Committee on Food Safety, we plan to conduct public consultation on the proposed amendments to the Regulations in 2016 and brief the LegCo FSEH Panel in due course.  

Note: The Codex Alimentarius Commission was co-established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization to serve as an international authority to set food-related standards and guidelines for protecting the health of consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the food trade.

Ends/Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Issued at HKT 18:11


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