Legislative Council

LC Paper No. CB(2) 2714/98-99
(These minutes have been
seen by the Administration)

Ref : CB2/PL/HS

LegCo Panel on Health Services

Minutes of special meeting held on Monday, 19 July 1999 at 8:30 am in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Building

Members Present:

Hon Michael HO Mun-ka (Chairman)
Dr Hon LEONG Che-hung, JP (Deputy Chairman)
Hon LAW Chi-kwong, JP
Dr Hon TANG Siu-tong, JP

Members Absent:

Hon HO Sai-chu, SBS, JP
Hon Cyd HO Sau-lan
Hon CHAN Yuen-han
Hon Mrs. Sophie LEUNG LAU Yau-fun, JP
Dr Hon YEUNG Sum
Hon YEUNG Yiu-chung

Public Officers Attending:

Mr Gregory LEUNG, JP
Acting Secretary for Health and Welfare

Deputy Director of Health (2)

Miss Eliza YAU
Principal Assistant Secretary, Health and Welfare Bureau, Medical 1

Dr Gloria TAM
Assistant Director of Health (Hygiene)

Assistant Director of Agriculture and Fisheries (Agriculture and Regulation)

Dr David IP
Acting Senior Veterinary Officer (Veterinary Public Health)

Dr LEUNG Siu-fai
Senior Fisheries Management Officer
Clerk in Attendance:
Ms Doris CHAN
Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 4
Staff in Attendance:
Ms Joanne MAK
Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 4
Opening remarks

The Chairman welcomed representatives of the Administration to the meeting. He noted that the Administration had previously proposed to include an agenda item on further amendments to the Human Organ Transplant Ordinance and enquired about the present position of the matter. Acting Secretary for Health and Welfare (Atg. SHW) confirmed that the paper would be ready for consideration by the Panel in August.

I. Confirmation of minutes of meeting held on 8 March 1999
(LC Paper No. CB(2)2590/98-99)

2. The minutes of the meeting held on 8 March 1999 were confirmed.

II. Government's monitoring and testing of various types of food
(LC Paper Nos. CB(2)2592/98-99(01) and (02))

3. The Chairman invited the Administration to introduce the paper and to provide supplementary information on the subject.

4. Deputy Director of Health (DDH) said that as previous discussions on the subject were targetted at specific incidents, he was glad to have the present opportunity for a more detailed general discussion. He highlighted the importance of close collaboration among the trade, the consumers and the regulatory agency for achieving satisfactory food safety. The aim was to prevent the entry of contaminants into the food chain from the farm or the sea to the dining table. He then briefly described the work of the Department of Health (DH) in relation to food safety. He pointed out that legal requirements had been set for the safety standards of high risk food items. Apart from requiring each consignment to be accompanied by health certificates issued by the exporting country, the DH also made sample testing of such goods at import, wholesale and retail levels. Hong Kong's monitoring network also included other departments such as the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD), the two municipal services departments, the Hospital Authority and the universities.


5. Assistant Director of Health (Hygiene) (ADH(H)) then briefed members on the food safety risk of marine fish which mainly related to the presence of ciguatoxin in some coral reef fish. In line with the World Health Organization's recommendation for tackling this problem, health education by the AFD and the DH to both the traders and the consumers about this health hazard remained the mainstay of the local ciguatera food poisoning prevention strategy. In the light of the local preponderance of coral reef fish, a distribution tracing and testing surveillance system jointly administered by the AFD and the DH had been set up to deal with the problem. Under the testing system, coral reef fish from new fishing grounds would first be submitted by potential importers for sample testing of ciguatoxin.

6. As regards fresh water fish, ADH(H) pointed out that the greatest risk for food safety came from parasites which naturally infested many such fish. Human infestation could be completely avoided by adequate cooking or by freezing at -18 degrees Celsius or below.

7. The Chairman sought clarification as to whether it was Government's policy to ask the public not to eat coral reef fish or to make such fish as safe as possible for consumption. ADH(H) said that the Government's role was to reduce the risk as far as possible but not to ask the public not to consume such fish. DDH added that the present surveillance system helped to reduce risk to an acceptable level. He also pointed out that consumption of such fish was a matter of choice and Government could not guarantee that imported fish are 100% free from ciguatoxin. Therefore, the public would be advised of the types of coral reef fish at high risk, and if they still wished to eat such fish, they should only consume a small amount and not to eat such fish in conjunction with nuts and alcohol. In addition, the Government would help the traders to decide whether to import such fish.

8. Dr TANG Siu-tong questioned whether there was an adequate mechanism for food safety in Hong Kong and asked which department was responsible for co-ordination. DDH explained that the basis of Hong Kong's food safety mechanism was a monitoring system with collaborated efforts by the relevant bureaux, departments and statutory bodies. He pointed out that even in the United States, food safety control was not the exclusive responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration as 11 other federal agencies were also involved. As regards co-ordination, Atg. SHW explained that if diseases were involved, the DH would be taking the lead.

9. Referring to paragraph 5 of the information paper concerning health education and the Administration's replies to members' questions at the meeting, Mr LAW Chi-kwong pointed out that the problem of ciguatera poisoning had not been quantified. There was no information on the size of the fish, the amount that could be consumed within safety limits, the duration and effect of such poisoning, etc. He considered that in view of the difficulty in assessing the risk of ciguatera poisoning, the simple answer for the public would be not to consume any coral reef fish. He asked whether there was any detoxification method which could be used to treat the fish and whether any guidelines on the handling of such fish had been provided to the sector to prevent harm to the staff concerned as he understood that some of them had become sick after handling such fish.

10. ADH(H) said that there had been publicity and public education on the subject since 1994 and the efforts were enhanced last year. Information on the popular types of coral reef fish at risk, the parts of the fish that should be avoided and the reason for not consuming such fish in conjunction with nuts and spirits was included in leaflets and posters. As regards detoxification, ADH(H) explained that ciguatera toxin could not be taken out from the fish as it was accumulated in the body of the fish, in particular the head, the skin and the entrails, over a length of time. As to poisoning while handling marine fish, ADH(H) pointed out that it was not caused by ciguatoxin in coral reef fish but was from handling stone fish. She added that only a few restaurants sold this type of fish and advice on care in handling such fish had been given through the municipal services departments.

11. Dr LEONG Che-hung asked the Administration to clarify whether only fish from known high risk areas would be sample tested and the frequency of sample testing. ADH(H) explained that as there was a greater risk from new fishing areas, when importers planned to import from a new area, they would first discuss the matter with the AFD and the DH to see whether sample testing was required. Senior Fisheries Management Officer (SFMO) said that information on ciguatera poisoning cases was collected from the Internet and through correspondence with other countries, based on which decision on sample testing would be made. The relevant information on the subject would also be provided to importers of coral reef fish.

12. In response to a further question from Dr LEONG, SFMO said that importers were required to report to the Trade Department on the source, the species and the sizes of the imported fish and the AFD would decide whether sample testing was necessary. Normally, sample testing would be conducted. As regards fishermen, SFMO pointed out that most of them only fished near Hong Kong waters using the trawling method with no coral reef fish involved. A small percentage of them fished in the coral reef waters of Nansha and Xisha and they had been asked to notify the AFD on their return and to provide samples for testing. However, he admitted that there were difficulties in this regard as fishermen were not required to make a report of their catch. SFMO said that following the establishment of the reporting system last year, every batch of imported fish must be reported by completing a prescribed form and sample testing would be arranged as necessary. He added that importers were advised to have samples flown in for testing before making full import from new fishing areas.

13. The Chairman asked whether there were high risk areas from which imports were banned. SFMO commented that it was difficult to specify an area as high risk as the situation changed from time to time. The Government could only strengthen its monitoring and sample testing of fish from such areas.

14. The Chairman said that he had not seen the leaflet mentioned by ADH(H) and had not seen many of the posters. He observed that due to conflict of interests, the sector might not like to display the posters which drew their customers' attention to the risk of ciguatoxin in coral reef fish and therefore would affect their business. He asked the Administration to consider how to deliver the message through enhanced public education. SFMO said that the sector had been consulted when the four posters were being prepared and no objection was raised. Over 7 000 copies of the posters and the leaflet had been distributed to the sector as well as restaurants, wholesale and retail markets, public libraries, district offices, tertiary institutions and secondary schools. It was also available on the Government's homepage on the Internet. He agreed to follow up the Chairman's suggestion of arranging for display of the posters in prominent positions in markets with the Urban Services Department and the Regional Services Department. Clenbuterol poisoningAdm

15. The Chairman then asked the Administration to brief members on the problem of clenbuterol poisoning from consuming pig lung or liver. He wished to know whether the pork and offal in question came from pigs smuggled into Hong Kong without any health certification. Assistant Director of Agriculture and Fisheries (Agriculture and Regulation) (ADAF) said that the problem was related to illegal slaughtering. He explained that some pigs which had been fed with the prohibited beta-agonist drug had been slaughtered illegally to evade normal inspection and testing. Joint action had been taken by the AFD and the DH to tackle the matter at several levels, including sample testing at farms, stepping up enforcement action against illegal slaughtering as well as strengthening inspection and sample testing of meats at the retail level in conjunction with the municipal services departments and the DH. In response to a question from Dr LEONG Che-hung, ADAF pointed out that all live pigs slaughtered legally were sample tested. However, some meat stalls obtained their supplies from both legal and illegal sources.

16. Dr LEONG Che-hung was concerned about the lack of protection for the public when even meat sold in licensed stalls might not be safe. ADAF said that the Government would strengthen its enforcement action. ADH(H) added that in addition to normal routine sample testing, a large scale investigation had just been carried out upon intelligence received on such illegal activities. As regards penalty, the stall operators could be fined up to $50,000 or sentenced to six months imprisonment upon conviction.

Food Crises Management

17. Dr LEONG Che-hung referred to paragraph 12 of the paper on food crises and pointed out that at the meeting on 31 December 1997 to discuss the H5N1 outbreak, he had asked for a flow chart to be provided to show the steps to be taken in dealing with the crisis. But to date, the chart had not been provided. Atg. SHW undertook to provide a flow chart on the handling of food crises after the meeting. 18. In response to questions from Dr TANG Siu-tong and Dr LEONG Che-hung on the division of responsibilities among the relevant bureaux and departments, Atg. SHW said that under the existing system, when diseases were involved, the DH would assume the co-ordinating role. Under the proposed new structure, one department would take charge of all food crises as all the staff presently engaged in food safety duties in the DH, the AFD and the municipal services departments would come under the proposed new department. Adm

Health Certificates and Sample Testing

19. In reply to Dr TANG Siu-tong's question on the reliability of the health certificates issued by the exporting countries, ADH(H) said that the health certificates were issued by the health authorities of the exporting countries concerned based on their knowledge of the food producing process and sample testing of the food items. She pointed out that any sample testing method could not guarantee 100% safety. In cases where it was found that the guarantee given in the health certificates was not up to the highest standard, apart from dealing with that particular consignment of food, the DH would earmark the authorities concerned as targets for attention in future. As regards the percentage of items for sample testing, ADH(H) said that Hong Kong's standard of eight samples per 1 000 population already far exceeded the guideline of three samples per 1 000 population each year issued by the world health authorities.

20. The meeting ended at 9:40 am.

Legislative Council Secretariat
25 August 1999