Hong Kong Tightens Import Checks After Latest China Food Scare

April 21, 2006

Hong Kong's government and two of its biggest supermarket chains this week vowed to increase scrutiny on imports after as much as a third of a test batch of vegetables was found to have higher pesticide levels than considered safe under international standards.

Hong Kong imports nearly 80 percent of its vegetables from China, according to the Agriculture department. China's farming methods face increasing criticism amid concern about avian influenza, food scares in Hong Kong and a recent trade spat between China and South Korea over parasite-infested cabbage.

"Controlling the food chain as far as possible is what the government should try to do," said Desmond Toole, an associate professor in the Biology and Chemistry Department at the City University of Hong Kong. "But the Hong Kong government has no authority on the mainland."

Hours after the Greenpeace survey was released early this week, the Wellcome supermarket chain -- owned by Dairy Farm International Holdings Ltd., a unit of Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd. -- said it had stopped using one of its mainland Chinese suppliers. ParknShop supermarkets, owned by billionaire Li Ka- shing's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. said it was also working to correct the problem.

Checks Increased

Hong Kong's government said it had increased border surveillance and testing, without giving further details. The department is waiting for more information from the supermarkets about their suppliers in China before conducting an investigation, said Hilton Chung, information officer at the city's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

The survey findings are the latest in a string of China- based health concerns. Last week, Hong Kong police arrested a group smuggling fish tainted with malachite green, an illegal dye that may cause cancer, the Sing Tao newspaper reported. The group had been importing at least 15 tons of fish a day in the past four months, the paper said.

In March, Hong Kong resumed imports of live chickens from China's southern province of Guangdong, ending a three-week ban imposed after a man in the province died of avian influenza.

Controls Needed

"Food safety has become a great concern among Hong Kong people," the Greenpeace report said. "If the two (supermarket) chains do not have strict controls on their source monitoring and pesticide testing, vegetables with pesticides are very likely being stocked."

It's not just a Hong Kong problem. In November, South Korean officials discovered parasite eggs in a batch of Chinese-imported kimchi, which plunged the countries into the biggest trade spat in three years.

Critics say the solution may lie outside the Hong Kong government's control, in the villages and farms of China's southern province of Guangdong.

"In our investigation, we found the problem of illegal pesticides is serious in the mainland, where large amounts of banned pesticides are still being used," Greenpeace said.

Cross-Border Imports

Hong Kong imports about 490,000 tons of vegetables a year from China, producing only 71 tons of its own vegetables, chickens and pigs in 2004, according to the Agriculture department. The government tests samples from 70 to 80 percent of vehicles crossing into Hong Kong at Man Kam To, near the border with Shenzen, said Florence Ma, an assistant information officer in the department.

If a sample gives an ``unsatisfactory'' result, the government impounds the vehicle and conducts detailed tests that can take up to two days, Chung said. Of 21,000 detailed tests last year, 10 produced unsatisfactory results, Chung said.

Wellcome supermarkets -- which has 240 stores in Hong Kong and claims more than 13 million customers a month -- will increase the frequency of its checks, marketing manager Diane Chiu said in a telephone interview. About 90 percent of the chain's vegetables come from China, Chiu said.

ParknShop, which said it conducts more than 200 tests a day on its leafy green vegetables, is considering expanding food- safety inspections to include other vegetables such as tomatoes.

'Cellular Damage'

For this survey, Greenpeace bought 55 samples in four visits to supermarkets between November and March. Samples included 13 different types of vegetables and more than 30 percent of them contained pesticide residue exceeding international standards, the group said. Five were found to have illegal pesticides, including DDT, lindane, delta-HCH and methamidophos.

Results were measured against standards set by the European Union and the World Health Organization, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Pesticides affect the immune system, liver, kidneys, nervous system and maybe be carcinogenic, said Mildred Yang, an associate professor in the Biology Department of Hong Kong Baptist University.

"The major complaint about pesticides is that they can cause cellular damage over a long period of time," Yang said. "That can develop into tumors without showing physical symptoms."


To contact the reporter on this story:
Katy Stafford in Hong Kong at Kstafford5@bloomberg.net or
Clare Cheung in Hong Kong at scheung4@bloomberg.net.