24 May 2019
Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers have often been accused of going too far in enforcing what they see as their mandate. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers have often been accused of going too far in enforcing what they see as their mandate. Photo: HKEJ

This FEHD lunacy must stop right now

Enough is enough, action needs to be taken right now to rein in the clipboard-wielding Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officials who spend vast amounts of taxpayers’ money terrorizing senior citizens trying to earn a pittance, running after low-paid cleaners in case they infringe all manner of regulations, and going out in squads to hunt down restaurants and bars which allow customers to sit outside without a permit or are engaged in some other harmless activity that infringes their very hefty rule book.

Not satisfied with merely hassling people, the FEHD also played a very disturbing role in the heart-breaking saga of a family that wished to bury the fetus of a baby after a miscarriage.

The bureaucrats designated the remains as ‘clinical waste’ and said they should be disposed of accordingly.

Understandably, the distraught family did not agree and wanted a proper burial. It took an enormous effort, involving high-level intervention from the Catholic Church, to get the decision reversed. While the matter was finally resolved, why the bureaucrats held out in this callous manner is beyond belief.

Mind you it is all part of the same mindset that was responsible for no less than six FEHD officers descending on the elderly Ms Chu who committed the major crime of earning precisely one dollar for selling used cardboard.

Previously these heroes of law enforcement caught a 71-year old cleaner in the act of illicitly dumping water and instantly levied a fine of HK$1,500.

In both cases the Department of Justice eventually decided that a prosecution was not in the public interest.

However the FEHD officers are still out there and in great numbers harassing normally law-abiding citizens for infringements that are so amazingly petty as to defy comprehension.

When it comes to the harassment of people in the catering trade the FEHD has the benefit of ensuring a high hit rate because it is the industry’s frontline regulator and can therefore obstruct caterers from going about their business and then proceed to prosecute them.

Often this means sitting on applications for outside seating for literally years on end. Meanwhile anyone daring to make an application and pre-empting its outcome by putting a few tables and chairs outside their premises is liable to have squads of FEHD officials descend on their premises.

Thus, in a place like Sai Kung, the highly popular pastime of al fresco dining has turned into something of a nightmare except for the politically well-connected owners of overpriced Chinese seafood restaurants that are rarely subject to FEHD attention, while everything else is.

It may be argued that restaurant and bar owners can look after themselves but Ms Chu is not alone among the elderly poor scraping out a living by picking up paper and cardboard for recycling. It might be thought that no one would bother to harass people engaged in a very low level environmentally beneficial endeavor, however the FEHD knows an easy target when it sees one.

There are many other Ms Chus in Hong Kong who would rather work well into their old age rather than accept what they see as public charity, not that public funds are lavish. They value their dignity and maintain it by engaging in various types of very small-scale business such as collecting recyclable paper.

Only bureaucrats could possibly fret over the fact that they have not gone to the trouble and expense of registering themselves as a business. A reasonable person would simply say that this sort of thing should stay below the radar where it belongs.

In some ways it is wrong to heap blame on the FEHD officials who scour the streets with their clipboards because they are, at the end of the day, only ‘doing their job’. It is true, however, that some of them choose to do this job with quite unseemly vigor.

Nevertheless it is the people running the FEHD who are really to blame. They preside over a nasty little regime that judges results by the number of prosecutions they manage to achieve and perceive their role as being to stop things happening while, of course, covering their backsides in case anything bad happens that could possibly end up in having to accept responsibility.

What is required is nothing less than root and branch reform of the FEHD, a department that gives a bad name to law enforcement and revels in making the bureaucracy as odious as possible.

The new Chief Bureaucrat who takes over on July 1 might like to put reform of the FEHD at the top of her to-do list.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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