The government watchdog has said that the safety control system for imported fruits and vegetables is too relaxed and should be improved.

A direct investigation launched by the Office of the Ombudsman found that there was a frequent flow of lorries with vegetables driving through the Man Kam To Food Control Office. However, officers at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) conducted their sampling “at a very hasty pace,” and the workers contracted by the FEHD only inspected crates of produce close to the doors of truck storage compartments.

vegetable fruit
Photo: GovHK.

“If you only inspect those close to the doors, it is not representative enough, and it is easier for people to know that they only need to put the good food there,” said Ombudsman Connie Lau. “In other words, we are concerned about the situation of the food deep inside the lorries.”

It said the FEHD should provide guidelines to contractors and the number of examinations carried out should increase.

The Ombudsman said fruits and vegetables imported by sea constituted around 80 and 60 per cent of all those imported respectively. However, inspections on produce imported by sea were clearly more relaxed than for those imported by land or air.

“As a result, most of the fruits and vegetables imported by sea would have already entered the market for public consumption before having undergone any inspection. This situation is undesirable,” the investigation report said.

“The saving grace is that after our commencement of investigation, FEHD has started a trial scheme in the recent months to conduct sampling of fruits and vegetables imported by sea at importers’ warehouses/cold storages. That has at least provided some additional safeguard for public health.” It added that the FEHD should make it into a regular mechanism.

Ombudsman Connie Lau
Ombudsman Connie Lau. Photo: GovHK.

In normal circumstances, government labs would need 19 working days to test samples. The Ombudsman said it should be faster, with more resources provided.

“19 working days are not good enough for fruit and vegetables with a shorter preservation period,” Lau said. “We cannot rule out that some problematic fruits and vegetables of a batch [in testing] may have entered the market, or have been sold out, or we have already eaten them.”

The Ombudsman said lotus roots and bean sprouts should be included in the Schedule 1 of the Pesticide Residues in Food Regulation.

It also urged the government to update the Food Adulteration (Metallic Contamination) Regulations as soon as possible, as it has not been updated for two decades.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong welcomed the suggestions: “The FEHD should implement the suggestions as soon as possible to block the loopholes in food safety.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.