23 May 2019
Connie Lau Yin-hing releases a report pertaining to food safety complaints, saying authorities need to step up their act. Photos: Office of the Ombudsman
Connie Lau Yin-hing releases a report pertaining to food safety complaints, saying authorities need to step up their act. Photos: Office of the Ombudsman

Ombudsman slams govt over handling of food safety complaints

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has faced criticism from the Ombudsman over handling of complaints related to food safety and related law enforcement actions. 

In its latest report, the Ombudsman pointed to a case in which the FEHD was alleged to have failed to pursue prosecution against a restaurant after a customer found a black worm inside a dish of boiled prawns, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported. 

The FEHD had said that the species of the worm could not be determined despite repeated examinations at its Pest Control division, government laboratories and the Biodiversity Conservation Division of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

The FEHD explained that its Centre for Food Safety (CFS) has therefore decided not to prosecute the restaurant due to lack of sufficient evidence, and the possibility that the worm was in the shrimp itself. Authorities deemed that a warning letter to the restaurant was enough, it said.

Chu Man-yan, senior investigation officer of the Office of the Ombudsman, said the three departments the FEHD contacted were not specialists in worms study.

As the gatekeeper for food safety, the FEHD should have tried to locate authoritative specialists in the field, he said.

The department’s suggestion that the worm could have come from the shrimp was unacceptable, Apple Daily cited the officer as saying.

In another complaint handled by the Office of the Ombudsman, 23 mg of metaldehyde was found in two catties of Indian Lettuce bought from a market by a citizen. The residue was 13 times the limit for pesticides in Lactuca Sativa vegetables under the law.

The CFS said Indian Lettuce is not among the family of Lactuca Sativa vegetables and therefore could not be compared directly, suggesting separate risk assessment tests should be conducted.

The CFS’ subsequent report suggested that long-term consumption could pose a health threat but it never mentioned if there was violation of the law. Hence, the CFS only issued a warning letter to the vegetable seller without launching prosecution.

The Ombudsman said the FEHD failed to take the prosecution issue seriously even though tests have suggested that the residual pesticides were harmful to consumers’ health.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said it is difficult for consumers to determine if the food products they buy are safe to eat, and that it is the responsibility of the FEHD to serve as a gatekeeper.

She called for a review of the existing laws which have yet to provide prosecution guidelines on food safety for several common vegetables, such as white radish, lotus root and bean sprouts.

An FEHD spokesperson said the department will accept the recommendations from the Ombudsman and that they have taken measures to improve the existing mechanism on handling complaints and investigations.

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