LCQ18: Regulation of nutrition claims on food product labels
Under the existing Nutrition Labelling Scheme (the Scheme), nutrition labels on prepackaged food products must contain information on energy and the seven core nutrients per package/per serving of food products. However, the making of those nutrition claims such as "natural" and "organic" on food product packaging is not regulated under the Scheme. As there are no standardised definitions for such nutrition claims, it is difficult for consumers to judge whether the food products concerned are healthier than other food products of the same type. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) of the respective numbers of complaints received in the past three years by the authorities about false and misleading nutrition claims on the packages of prepackaged food products (with a breakdown by type of food product);
(2) of the most common cases of non-compliance with the nutrition labelling requirements in the past three years, and the number of food producers/traders convicted as a result; and
(3) whether the authorities will consider bringing those nutrition claims such as "natural" and "organic" within the ambit of the Scheme?
Whether the food is "natural" or "organic" is not within the regulatory scope of the nutrition labelling scheme in the international arena. The definitions, certification standards or regulatory approaches regarding "natural" and "organic" food adopted by different regions/countries vary. The major differences between organic food and ordinary food are their ways of production, processing and handling. There is no significant difference between the two in terms of 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 (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), through the risk-based Food Surveillance Programme, takes food samples (including organic food) at the import, wholesale and retail levels for testing.
The Government has implemented a nutrition labelling scheme for prepackaged foods under the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap 132W) (Regulations) to help consumers make informed food choices. Under the Regulations, nutrition claims are representations which state, suggest or imply that a food has particular nutritional properties including the energy value, and the content of protein, available carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, sodium and sugars, or vitamins and minerals. Nutrition claims also include nutrient content claims, nutrient comparative claims and nutrient function claims.
The Regulations also require that the name or designation of prepackaged food shall not be false or misleading as to the nature of the food. In addition, the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap 362) forbids any person, in the course of trade, to apply a false trade description to any goods supplied or make misleading omission regarding any goods supplied.
My reply to the three parts of the question is as follows:
(1) From 2015 to 2017, the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) received a total of 3 248 complaints regarding food products with false trade descriptions (including the type of product, place of origin, price, weight and ingredients). After investigation, the C&ED initiated prosecutions in 29 cases, of which 19 cases resulted in the traders or persons being convicted, while the court proceedings for the remaining 10 cases are in progress. Separately, the C&ED issued warning letters or advisory letters to traders in 21 cases. The C&ED does not maintain statistics on the number of complaints received and the number of prosecutions taken by types of food products.
In the same period, the FEHD received a complaint about misleading information on label of a prepackaged beverage product. The trader or person involved was prosecuted and convicted.
(2) From 2015 to 2017, the FEHD made a total of 64 prosecutions against violation of the nutrition labelling requirements, in which 58 food producers/traders were convicted, and the court proceedings for the remaining six cases are still in progress. Circumstances which are in breach of the nutrition labelling requirements include the absence of nutrition labelling as required by the legislation and inconsistency of individual nutrient contents with the declared values on nutrition labels.
(3) The Government has been promoting organic food labeling. For example, funds are allocated from the Agricultural Development Fund under the Vegetable Marketing Organization for the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre (HKORC) to provide voluntary certification service for farmers. The HKORC has established a set of stringent guidelines with reference to international standards to ensure that the process adopted by organic farms complies with the certification standards of organic farming and production. Educational and publicity activities are organised by relevant government departments and the HKORC to enhance public awareness of organic food labelling.
The CFS will keep a close watch on the international scientific research, risk assessments, regulatory trends and local circumstances related to "natural" and "organic" food.
Ends/Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Issued at HKT 15:20
Issued at HKT 15:20