27 October 2016
Fresh fruit and vegetables section inside a Hong Kong supermarket. Most of the territory's meat and vegetables supplies are from China. Photo: HKEJ
Fresh fruit and vegetables section inside a Hong Kong supermarket. Most of the territory's meat and vegetables supplies are from China. Photo: HKEJ

Why HK gets better food even as China safety woes linger

The rules may seem a bit arbitrary, but did you know that there are detailed standards concerning the weight, pelage and body size of porker pigs to be exported to Hong Kong?

Among other things, the weight of these pigs must not exceed 110 kilograms and must also be no less than 90 kg, according to mainland media.

People in Hong Kong are aware that much of their food comes from the mainland, but few have knowledge on how the food is produced or regulated.

For instance, many Hongkongers may not know that the pork they eat everyday may be from pig farms in Luohe (漯河), a less developed prefectural level city in the central Henan province and home to meat processing giant Shuanghui Group (000895.CN).

Shuanghui was at the center of a scandal in 2011 following the discovery of some poisonous leanness-enhancing agents in its products.

Media reports of that, as well as food safety problems involving various other Chinese firms, have fed a negative image of mainland products.

Meat is especially viewed with suspicion by many, but now this raises the question: are the fears somewhat overblown?  

Taking a dispassionate view and analyzing the situation carefully, we must say that it indeed appears to be the case.

If anyone thinks that his favorite baked pork chop rice may not be safe to eat, he should consider some facts.

The truth is that some pigs are raised exclusively on designated farms in China for Hongkongers, while the rest of not-so-safe pork is for mainlanders themselves. Gao Yan (高燕), deputy minister of commerce, told Xinhua that food supply from the mainland to Hong Kong has always been a priority and that the industry enjoyed average customer satisfaction rate of over 99.9 percent in past years.

There are more than a dozen departments in the mainland involved in food safety regulations but the Ministry of Commerce and the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine are the only two organs overseeing food export to Hong Kong. With just two entities involved, it reduces red tape and enables authorities to ensure maximum safety.

An internal directive, for instance, reiterates that porker pigs for overseas markets “must be raised separately” from those for domestic consumption.

The pigs raised on these “Hong Kong only” farms in Henan, the largest meat exporter to the territory, enjoy a far better “living standard”. According to Phoenix Weekly, the pigs enjoy air conditioning during winter and summer months. Breeder pigs are fed special diet, including eggs, and sows are kept in farrowing houses during lactation and even fed with fish soup.

The meticulousness can also be seen from the fact that employees of these farms are generally not allowed to take leaves from November until early the next year, the period deemed to be high risk for possible virus infections. If there is any unavoidable leave, the employee will have to undergo a three-day observation period before he resumes work.

Data from the Centre for Food Safety in Hong Kong show that currently there are 376 registered chicken farms and 520 vegetable farms in the mainland that supply chilled poultry, fresh eggs, pork, beef and vegetables to the city. All of these farms are routinely checked by mainland inspection and quarantine authorities, under a separate set of standards including sampling of soil, air, water and other environmental media, every three months.

This boosts the chances that despite China’s partially “anarchic” food and agricultural sector, which has never been short of contamination and malpractice scandals, quality food supply to Hong Kong can be ensured. We can say that there is, in fact, “one country, two systems” when it comes to food safety.

That also explains the phenomenon why pork from a same production line that fails to conform to the Hong Kong standards may still be “safe” domestically.

Yao Tongshan (姚同山), former chief financial officer of Mengniu Dairy (02319.HK), once told the media that his firm’s milk and yoghurt exported to Hong Kong are “definitely of higher quality” than the same products sold in the mainland. His remarks caused a furor at home, but he was merely stating the truth.

Now, given all these facts, should Hongkongers be thankful to mainland authorities? There is indeed a case for that, but we must also acknowledge the role played by Hong Kong’s Food and Health Bureau and other local watchdogs in ensuring safe supplies from across the border.

The Centre for Food Safety adopts reference values promulgated by the World Health Organization on maximum pesticide residue limits in food. The process consists of over 3,300 testing programs while the corresponding standard regime in the mainland currently only has 807 such programs.

The Centre also runs a control office at Man Kam To border checkpoint – a major port for cross-border goods transport – to check vegetable consignments, including seal and export documents and take samples for testing of chemical residues.

If any batch with excessive pesticide is identified, the entire consignment will be destroyed and the mainland authorities will be notified for action against the concerned farms and follow-up samplings of subsequent consignments.

Files from the Legislative Council’s Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene show that in 2011 alone, the Hong Kong government conducted 20 surprise checks at mainland vegetable farms.

The cross-border cooperation is not just Beijing’s one-way concession to Hong Kong.

Mainland food supply was normalized in 1962 when China was in dire need of foreign exchange amid embargoes by the Western world. Selling pork and vegetables to Hong Kong was seen as a workaround to bypass the boycott and generate revenue for the poverty-stricken country.

Nowadays the quality-food supply is an example of what economic incentives and assiduous law enforcement can deliver.

Food suppliers to Hong Kong are generally ensured a decent margin as Hong Kong buyers accept higher batch purchase prices, and trade of beef and pork is monopolized by Ng Fung Hong Ltd., a subsidiary of the state-owned conglomerate China Resources.

It’s hard to directly compare retail prices of food in Hong Kong to that of the mainland due to exchange rate changes and different resale operations but a report in the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News does offer a clue about how profitable the food exportation business can be.

Some vegetables originally grown for sale in Hong Kong are available at ParknShop outlets in Guangzhou – usually in small batches when there is surplus in cross-border supply. Onions are sold at 3.5 yuan per kg, six times the normal price in China, while Indian lettuce for Hong Kong fetches 7.8 yuan per kg at the supermarket as compared to 1.8 yuan per kg in Guangzhou’s wet markets.

Any malpractice, irregularities or safety incident will put a farm or producer at the risk of losing his qualification to supply food across the border.

In the end, with higher profits and stable demand, the miracle of safe food for Hong Kong is guaranteed even as the mainland continues to grapple with food safety woes at home.

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Read more:

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A designated export vegetable farm in Guangdong. Photo: Xinhua

Mainland quality inspection staff check seafood to be exported to Hong Kong. Photo: Tai Kung Pao

EJ Insight writer

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