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Officials Seek to Ensure Safety of Chinese Food Exported to Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has recently lifted a ban on Chinese eggs, after the mainland improved its food safety controls. There has been a series of safety scares in the past several months over food from the mainland, where most of what Hong Kong eats comes from. VOA's Heda Bayron has this report, prepared by Juliet Ye in Hong Kong.

In early January, the first batch of eggs bearing new health certificates arrived in Hong Kong from China's Hubei Province.

The certificate attached to the 750 boxes listed the farm the eggs came from, and guaranteed that they were free of both Sudan Red dye - a potential cancer-causing agent - and the bird flu virus.

The new certificate system, which so far is only voluntary, was imposed after the discovery last year of Sudan Red dye in eggs imported from the mainland. Carcinogens were also found separately in other types of Chinese foods, including freshwater fish.

York Chow, Hong Kong secretary of Health, Welfare and Food, says the new food registration system will eventually be expanded. "In the future, all importers will be required to register with the Center for Food Safety and apply for a license before being allowed to import. And together we will ask them to record their sources of imports and distribution points," he said.

Hong Kong imports 95 percent of its food, and most of that from the mainland. There have been periodic reports of tainted foods from China over the past decade, including vegetables, peanuts, meats, fish and bean curd products.

In recent incidents, fish from southern China's Guangdong Province were found to contain a poisonous chemical called malachite green. And ducks and chickens in Hubei, in central China, were being fed with Sudan Red Dye to color the yolks of their eggs red. Many Chinese believe red yolks are more nutritious or taste better, and producers can therefore sell the eggs at a higher price.

Hong Kong's new registration program requires egg importers to list the types and quantities of eggs, the farm where they were produced, and the distribution channels.

Mainland authorities have agreed to help Hong Kong to enhance the food safety. The central government promised to inspect registered egg farms and companies, and only these complying with government requirements would be licensed to export to Hong Kong.

Some Hong Kong lawmakers, however, doubt the effectiveness of the new program, because only the egg boxes are marked, not the individual eggs.

Government officials also plan to amend food safety laws to grant the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau the power to ban businesses that sell contaminated food, and to recall suspect items.

The Lunar New Year, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar, is approaching, and people in the mainland and Hong Kong are in a habit of purchasing special items for their holiday feasts.

Li Yuanping, director of China's Import and Export Food Security Bureau, says the government will set up a special unit to ensure the safety of exports, and will try to certify the quality of food shipped to Hong Kong. "Every batch of food will be carefully inspected. For New Year pastries and sausages, we will conduct more checks on the content of additives like sweeteners, preservatives, colorings, etc.," he said.

Food quality is a problem for mainland citizens as well as those in Hong Kong. The Asian Development Bank estimates that in China, food-related diseases affect 300 million people every year, and cost four-point-five billion dollars in medical expenses and $21 billion in lost productivity.

The ADB report attributes the country's poor food safety record to lack of a sound food laws, and outdated inspection methods.