LCQ17: Organic food certification
There is currently no legislation regulating the production, certification, labelling, sale etc. of organic food products. The Government commissioned in 2011 a consultancy study on whether the production and sale of local organic food products should be regulated. The consultancy study concluded that there was no pressing need to introduce such legislation. In addition, the Government indicated in a consultation document entitled New Agricultural Policy: Sustainable Agricultural Development in Hong Kong published in 2014 that the authorities had put in place an Organic Farming Support Service and actively encouraged and supported local farmers to develop organic farming. Given the robust development of the organic food market in recent years, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it will conduct afresh a study on the regulation of the production, sale etc. of local organic food products, including regulation by way of legislation; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) of the authorities' measures to forestall the situation where the regulatory mechanism for organic food products lags behind the development of the industry; and
(3) as some unscrupulous traders deceive consumers by selling non-organic food products as organic ones, whether the authorities will establish a mechanism to investigate and follow up such complaints; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
Different regions/countries have different definitions on organic food. Also, the certification standards and methods vary.
Fresh vegetables are currently the most significant type of locally produced organic food product. In 2000, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) launched the Organic Farming Conversion Scheme (later renamed as the Organic Farming Support Service (OFSS)). The OFSS helps local farmers transform from conventional farming to organic farming through the provision of technical support, including support in horticultural skills, soil fertility management, pest and disease control and seed saving, with a view to facilitating local farmers to open up new markets and enhance their competitiveness with the production of high quality vegetables. As at February 2017, 299 farms in Hong Kong had joined the AFCD's OFSS. One-third of them joined in the past five years. Occupying a total land area of 108 hectares, these 299 organic farms produce about six tonnes of organic vegetables per day on average, accounting for less than 0.3% of the total fresh vegetables supply in Hong Kong.
The Government has all along been promoting organic food labelling. With funding from the Agricultural Development Fund under the Vegetable Marketing Organization (VMO), the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC) has started to provide voluntary certification service for farmers since December 2002. 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, to ensure that the process adopted by organic farms complies with the certification standards of organic farming and production. Certified farms may attach a label of the certification body to their products for easy identification. Organic food products certified by the HKORC include vegetables, cultured fish and other processed food. The HKORC conducts regular surveys to monitor the market situation.
The Government commissioned a consultancy study in 2011 to assess the need for regulating the production and sale of local organic food products (including organic agricultural products). In view of the small scale of the local organic food sector and the fact that the Government's main policy objectives in respect of food are to ensure food safety and secure stable food supply, the consultancy report advised that there was no pressing need to introduce new legislation to regulate the production and sale of local organic food products.
The consultant recommended that the Government should enhance consumer education, enrich consumers' knowledge of organic food and promote certification of organic products by administrative measures. The consultant's recommendations were reported to the Legislative Council Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene in 2013. The Government has thereafter strengthened consumer education on organic food products, supported the trade to continue the promotion of organic food labelling and reminded consumers of recognising the certification labels issued by organic food certification bodies.
My reply to the three parts of the question is as follows:
(1) to (2) The major differences between organic food and ordinary food are their ways of production, processing and handling. Such differences cannot be detected by testing the food products (including vegetables). There is no significant difference between the two in terms of food safety. The Government attaches great importance to food safety. All food for sale in Hong Kong for human consumption (either organic or ordinary food) must comply with the same set of statutory standards for food safety and quality, as well as labelling requirements to ensure its fitness for human consumption. The Centre for Food Safety, through the risk-based food surveillance programme, takes food samples (including organic food) at the import, wholesale and retail levels for testing.
The Government will continue to enhance consumer education on organic food, enrich consumers' knowledge of organic food, strengthen the technical support for farmers and improve the existing administrative measures, including further promoting the certification scheme, streamlining the certification procedures and promulgating a reporting mechanism for food fraud (including false claim of organic food). The Government will also 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) Under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (the Ordinance) (Cap. 362), any person who, in the course of any trade or business, makes false or misleading statements in respect of the goods (including organic food) he supplies commits an offence. The Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) may take enforcement actions according to the Ordinance. C&ED has been proactively handling complaints related to false trade description, adopting a risk-based approach in prioritising its enforcement actions. After securing a reasonable amount of details, it will conduct in-depth investigation and evidence gathering on the complaints, and take appropriate enforcement actions having regard to the particular facts and evidence of the cases.
Ends/Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Issued at HKT 13:05
Issued at HKT 13:05