August 23, 2005

Hong Kong people despair over China food scares

By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - First, it was a deadly bacteria in
pigs, then it was a suspected cancer-causing chemical in fish.
Now people in Hong Kong are wondering what's left to eat.

"There are just fewer and fewer things left to buy in the
market. I've stopped buying fish because we have children in
the family," said Madam Loke, an office worker. "But it's hard
to go without pork. I just make sure I cook it thoroughly."

In the last month, Hong Kong has reeled from a string of
scares over food from China, including pork, eels and fish.

They come after years of warnings from environmental groups
about excessive pesticide levels in vegetables from China, and
worries about eating poultry since an outbreak of bird flu in
Hong Kong killed six people in 1997.

While Hong Kong residents despair, experts are demanding
that authorities in both Hong Kong and China implement and
enforce tough quality controls.

China owes not just Hong Kong, but the rest of the world a
responsibility as it has become a major food exporter, they

"Compared to many other food exporting nations, regulations
in China are just not good enough," said Chu Hon-keung of the
conservation group Friends of the Earth.

"For money, producers cut corners and use banned substances
at the expense of public health. The stuff they produce is not
food, but curses for future generations in Hong Kong and the
rest of the world, especially with globalization," Chu said.

In the last month, many Hong Kong residents have avoided
pork after an outbreak of a pig-borne disease in mainland China
which has killed nearly 40 people. Ten people in Hong Kong have
also been infected with the disease this year.

In the last week, government scientists have discovered a
suspected cancer-causing chemical, malachite green, in most of
the eels and some freshwater fish imported from China. The
chemical, used to fight infections in fish and as a dye for
clothes, has been banned by many countries, including China.


China's food standards threaten not only tiny Hong Kong,
but a growing number of countries importing Chinese products.

Singapore and Japan, which import huge amounts of Chinese
eels, have stepped up checks for malachite green.

Tokyo has warned it will consider a ban if widespread
contamination is found, while Singapore will require all eels
and freshwater fish imported from China to undergo pre-export

Some biologists say there is no need to panic over the
detection of malachite green in fish because huge amounts of
contaminated eel and fish would have to be eaten before one
could risk developing cancer. But many prefer to play it safe.

"This is no over-reaction, especially when the chemical is
banned in many countries because it is carcinogenic. Although
it has not been tested on humans, we will advise everyone to
avoid it," said lawmaker and doctor Kwok Ka-ki.

The food scares have underlined a lack of quality control
here and on the mainland, and Hong Kong's sensitive relations
with political masters in China, to which it returned in 1997.

The Hong Kong government does not have the power to recall
food products, but hopes to pass legislation allowing it to do
so sometime this year.

Hong Kong's health minister flew to Beijing on Tuesday for
urgent talks on how to improve communication channels with
provinces in China to obtain health updates more quickly.