Legislative Council
Panel on Health Services
Meeting on 12 October 1998

Progress on Review of Structure for Discharge of
Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene


This paper sets out the key problems in the existing structure for delivery of food safety and environmental hygiene services and reports on the progress of the review on the subject.

Current Division of Responsibilities

2. The major bodies involved in food safety and environmental hygiene are the two Municipal Councils (MCs), the Urban Services Department and Regional Services Department, the Health and Welfare Bureau, the Department of Health (DH), the Economic Services Bureau, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD), the Planning, Environmental and Lands Bureau, the Environmental Protection Department and the Hospital Authority. Their respective functions are illustrated in a diagram at Annex.

Problem Areas

3. Arising from the food and disease related incidents over the past year, we have identified the following problems and weaknesses in the existing structure -

  1. The fragmentation of responsibilities between the MCs and the Government bureaux and departments leads to the lack of focal point of direction for the overall co-ordination and direction on food safety and environmental hygiene matters, which cut across the functions of a number of departments. There is no bureau overseeing the policy matters of the MCs and the Municipal Services Departments. As the Hygiene Services Committee is only an advisory body, the Director of Health's power to give directions is somewhat limited, and the Committee itself has no power to make binding decisions on any particular department or the MCs.

  2. The lack of a focal point of direction undermines our ability to deal with large scale food safety or environmental hygiene emergencies, which by nature require quick central decision and large scale mobilisation of resources among different departments/bodies within very limited time.

  3. The current fragmentation of responsibilities has adversely affected efficiency in the delivery of services and policy co-ordination in some cases. A case in point is the sub-optimal use of resources in waste management as waste collection and transportation services are undertaken by the two MCs and Municipal Services Departments in their respective region, preventing the optimum deployment of resources.

  4. Recent food related incidents have shown that our traditional food safety and environmental hygiene control mechanisms are not well equipped to meet new problems and new challenged. With the emergence of new developments such as novel foods, new strains of pathogenic micro-organisms, changing eating habit, increasing geographical mobility and ageing population, etc, the challenges ahead are considerable. A central point of direction is necessary to determine how our resources should best be used to reduce the potential health hazards to the lowest possible level, in accordance with an integrated long-term plan which is based on scientific evidence and professional advice.

  5. The problem of fragmentation of responsibilities over food safety and environmental hygiene is complicated by the fact that the two MCs have the authority to make different by-laws with different standards applicable to their respective areas.

Considerations For a Revised Structure

4. Having examined the above inherent problems and weaknesses in our existing structure, we consider that there is an urgent need to revise our current structure for the protection of public health. Fundamentally, we consider that the revised structure should be able to meet the following requirements -

  1. First and foremost, there must be good co-ordination and very quick and appropriate response from all relevant departments and bodies in order that the necessary expertise, manpower and resources, etc, can be swiftly mobilised and control measures implemented at the earliest stage possible. In case of emergencies, any delay in implementing appropriate control measures may seriously affect the effectiveness of the whole control programme and lead to very disastrous consequences in terms of human lives and economic loss.

  2. Secondly, the new structure must be able to provide clear-cut directions for prompt and appropriate response to food safety and other emergencies and facilitate the formulation of appropriate long-term preventive plans. The relevant critical areas cover a wide range of activities including import control, control at primary production, food processing, wholesale, retail, storage, and transportation stages, food hygiene at both food premises and household levels, upgrading of sanitation, promotion of public awareness and healthy living habits, etc. Given the complexity of the problem, a streamlined structure with simple and clear-cut delineation of policy responsibilities and power would be required.

  3. Thirdly, the revised structure must be able to maintain very close co-operation between the Government and all relevant stakeholders, which include the health and food safety authorities in the Mainland and overseas countries, international organisations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States of America, the World Health Organisation, and the local community as a whole. Important decisions and government to government contacts are required, for example, in devising proper import and export control measures, harmonising standards for international trade, developing cross-regional surveillance systems and facilitating interflow of modern technology and knowhow. A centralised government agency will provide the necessary channels.

Progress of the Review

5. The Administration proposed in the Review of District Organisations - Consultation Document that the Government should assume responsibility for food safety and environmental hygiene. In this regard, the Constitutional Affairs Bureau has consulted the public on the subject matter between 1 June 1998 to 31 July 1998. There is general public support for the Government to assume direct responsibilities for food safety and environmental hygiene.

6. To take matters forward, the Constitutional Affairs Bureau has commissioned a Consultancy Study on Food Safety and Environmental Services. While some more detailed arrangements are being finalised, we are convinced that we have found a more effective framework for providing food safety and environmental hygiene services which includes the following elements -

  1. a new department should be set up to be responsible, among other things, for all aspects of food safety and food hygiene. This will enable the Government to respond to "food crises" and outbreaks of epidemics swiftly and decisively. Expert and dedicated staff will be drawn from the DH, the AFD, the Urban Services Department and the Regional Services Department to provide food safety and environmental hygiene services in the new department;

  2. the new department will be working to a new policy Bureau. The Bureau will be responsible for overseeing the new department, the Environmental Protection Department and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department.

  3. to ensure public participation in the important matters of food safety and environmental hygiene, the District Boards will be empowered with a greater advisory role in the delivery of these services at the district level. They will be given more resources to do their job; and

  4. at the central level, one or more advisory committees will be established to advise the policy bureau and new department on major policy issues, so as to allow greater professional and community participation in policy formulation.

7. We believe the new structure will -

  1. provide strong and clear leadership in the co-ordination and direction on food safety and environmental hygiene matters; and

  2. ensure efficient co-ordination and prompt response to food safety crises and other emergency situations.

8. Details of the new framework are being finalised. We intend to bring this new structure into operation by 1 January 2000 at the earliest.

Health and Welfare Bureau
7th October 1998