The government has proposed easing the restrictions that had been placed on food imports from some parts of Japan in the wake of that nation’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
On Tuesday, the Food and Health Bureau and the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) jointly submitted a proposal to the Legislative Council, laying out a plan to relax restrictions on food from four of the five Japanese prefectures that had been covered under the import ban.
According to the proposal, vegetables, fruits, milk, milk beverages and infant formula from the Ibaraki, Tochigi, Chiba and Gunma prefectures will be allowed into Hong Kong if the items come with export certification and attestation that they are free from radioactive contamination.
The import ban on food from the Fukushima prefecture will, however, remain in place.
The restrictions were placed after the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima suffered radiation leakage due to a massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.
Last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor turned down an appeal from visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono to lift the import ban.
Lam had cited safety concerns for the continued import restrictions, but now it appears that authorities are not averse to a partial relaxation of the ban.
A government source told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that authorities aim to undertake sampling and testing of imported products from the four prefectures even after the proposed partial relaxation of the ban is approved by the Legco.
There is no timetable set for the relaxation, according to the source.
Data from the CFS show that, between March 2011 and May 2018, the agency had tested 490,000 food samples imported from Japan since the ban took effect seven years ago, with low radiation levels found in only 64 of them.
In a blog post on Tuesday, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said there is concrete and sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that radiation risk is now “very low” in relation to Japanese food.
Stressing that she has fully taken the public’s concerns into account, Chan promised that two levels of gatekeeping by the authorities — of both Japan and Hong Kong — will be implemented to ensure the safety of food from the radiation-affected prefectures once imports resume.
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan said she is against relaxing the ban, and that she feels there is no urgency for such a move.
Wong pointed out that China, South Korea and Taiwan still maintain strict curbs on food from the affected Japanese prefectures.
The government should accord top priority to public health, the lawmaker added.
While it remains to be seen if the government’s plan will get cleared quickly, it appears the debate may not mean much given the actual situation on the ground.
No matter whether the proposal ends up being passed, the fact is that Hongkongers seem to have let their guard down on Japanese food.
Data provided by the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong show the city has been the largest buyer in the world of agricultural products exported by Japan for 13 consecutive years.
Last year, Hong Kong accounted for nearly one-fourth of Japan’s farm product exports, followed by the United States, which only took up 13.8 percent.
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