Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene


Confirmed Minutes of the Sixth Meeting
held at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, 1 March 2001
at Room 1007, 10/F Citibank Tower, Garden Road

Present

Dr TSE Chi-wai, Daniel (Chairman)
Mr CHAN Bing-woon
Dr HO Dit-sang, John
Mr KAN Chung-nin, Tony
Mrs LAM WONG Pik-har, Grace
Mr LEE Luen-wai, John
Dr the Hon LO Wing-lok
Professor KWAN Hoi-shan
Professor MA Ching-yung
Professor YUEN Kwok-yung
Mrs Lily YAM Secretary for the Environment and Food
Mrs Lessie WEI Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation
Mrs Rita LAU Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene
Dr Margaret CHAN Director of Health
Mrs Ingrid YEUNG (Secretary)


Absent with Apologies

Mr CHEN Shu-lin, Mark
Miss KI Man-fung, Leonie
Dr LEUNG Ding-bong, Ronald
Mr LO Yau-lai, Winston


In Attendance

Environment and Food Bureau

Mr Paul TANG Deputy Secretary for the Environment and Food
Miss Dora FU Principal Assistant Secretary (A) 2

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department

Dr Leslie SIMS Assistant Director (Agriculture, and Inspection)
Ms Wendy KO Senior Agricultural Officer

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department



Dr P Y LEUNG Deputy Director (Food and Public Health)
Dr Gloria TAM Assistant Director (Food Surveillance and Control)
Miss Linda LAW Senior Administrative Officer (Food and Public Health)

Department of Health



Dr L Y TSE Consultant (Community Medicine)

Vote of Thanks

Mrs Yam said that as this was the last meeting of the present term of membership, she would like to thank Members for the advice given to the Government in the past year.

Agenda Item 1: Confirmation of Minutes of Last Meeting

2. The Chairman said that the draft minutes had been sent to Members on 26 February 2001. The Secretariat had not received any comments. As Members did not propose any amendments at the meeting, the minutes were confirmed.

Agenda Item 2 : Matters arising from Minutes of Last Meeting

3. The Chairman said that the Environment and Food Bureau issued a Consultation Paper on the introduction of GM Food labelling system in Hong Kong on 26 February 2001. The consultation would last for three months and a copy of the consultation paper had been sent to each Member.

Agenda Item 3: Proposed Amendments to the Pesticides Ordinance

4. The Chairman said that the purpose of the paper "Proposed Amendments to the Pesticides Ordinance (Chapter 133)" was to seek Members' advice on the Administration's proposals to enhance the control of pesticides. He invited Dr Sims to introduce the paper. Dr Sims explained in detail the Administration's proposals.

5. In response to the Chairman's query, Dr Sims replied that the proposals were generally welcomed by the farmers and the pesticide and pest control trade. Some respondents were concerned that the proposed system might limit the availability of pesticides for use in the market, and that it might be difficult for small pest control service providers to comply with the licensing criteria. The Administration, however, did not consider that the proposed system would lead to such problems, but would take into account these concerns before finalizing the proposals.

6. A Member asked why labels on user instructions were not legally binding under the proposed system. As shown in the Annex to the paper, all other countries except Singapore adopted a legally binding labelling system regarding user instructions. Dr Sims replied that a non-binding system was proposed because it would be difficult to enforce mandatory user instructions for pesticides under the two categories which were for general use by the public. However, for restricted pesticides under the other two categories which could only be used by licensed pest control service providers and authorized farmers, it would be a licensing condition that the users must follow the user instructions.

7. In response to a Member's query, Dr Sims clarified that licences for pest control service providers would have to be renewed annually, whereas the registration for pesticide applicators would have to be renewed every five years.

8. Another Member asked what was the size of the sector affected and what would be the costs on consumers brought by the proposed system. Dr Sims replied that it was estimated that 300 pest control companies employing about 3,100 pesticide applicators would be affected. It was estimated that the proposed system would increase the overall operating cost of the trade by 3%. The increased cost was to meet the standard that should be in place to meet normal safety requirements. The licence fee under the proposed system would only marginally add to the operating cost.

9. In response to the Chairman's query, Dr Sims replied that HKU SPACE and VTC currently organized training courses for pesticide applicators and the course fee was about HK$2,000. The Chairman went on to ask why farmers were given training free of charge. Dr Sims replied that farmers did not use pesticides on commercial basis for service fees as pesticide applicators did. The provision of free training to farmers met the goal of promoting safe use of pesticides in the agricultural sector.

10. Addressing a Member's question, Ms Ko said that companies had to obtain licences before they could purchase pesticides under the two categories for restricted use. There was no restriction on the quantity of such pesticides being purchased. The Member asked how could the Administration control the sub-sale of pesticides by licensed companies. Ms Ko explained that one of the licensing conditions was that licensed companies should keep proper record of the stock of pesticides so that the Administration could keep track of their source and consumption.

11. Upon another Member's enquiry, Ms Ko said that implementation of the proposed system was estimated to require 17 staff ranging from technical staff to professional officers. Addressing the Chairman's question about the staffing cost involved, Mrs Wei replied that the additional workload of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) would be to register some 800 pesticides currently in the market and about 40 new pesticides emerging in the market every year. The annual additional staffing cost would be some HK$5 million.

12. Mrs Yam asked whether the licence fee would be able to recover the administrative cost incurred by AFCD under the proposed system. In response, Mrs Wei said that the licence fee would be calculated based on the user-pay principle with an ultimate objective to recover all the administrative cost incurred by the Department to implement the proposed system. The exact amount of the licence fee would be worked out in consultation with the Finance Bureau and after taking into account the concern of the trade.

13. A Member asked why proficiency assessment on pesticide applicators was not proposed in Hong Kong, whereas in other countries proficiency assessment was required. In the UK where there was no requirement for renewal of licences for agricultural/professional pesticide users and only a one-off proficiency assessment, there was a statutory code of practice for users to follow. Ms Ko explained that in the UK, there was no licensing control over pest control companies and all the statutory responsibilities rested with the applicators. In Hong Kong, most applicators did not have the same proficiency capability as their UK counterpart. Therefore a dual system to control the pest control service providers and the pesticide applicators was considered more suitable.

14. Addressing another Member's question, Dr Sims said that there would be a standardized format for the licensed pest control service providers to use as regards proper record keeping of the pesticides.

15. A Member asked how could the Administration ensure that there would not be false entries in the record kept by the licensed pest control service providers. Dr Sims replied that apart from the proper record keeping requirement, AFCD would also inspect service providers and pesticide applicators. The member asked if it was an offence to make false record. Ms Ko replied that under the existing Pesticides Ordinance, it was an offence if licensees contravened the licence conditions and proper record keeping would be one of the licence conditions.

16. Another Member commented that the proposed penalty level should take into account the gravity of the breach and the fact that there were small and big pesticide and pest control companies in the trade.

17. The meeting agreed to the Administration's proposal in principle. Members noted that the Administration would take into account the views received during consultation before proceeding with legislative amendments.

Agenda Item 4 : Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease - Present Situation and Control Measures

18. The Chairman invited Dr TAM to present the paper.

19. Dr Tam briefed Members of the chronology of the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and the control measures taken in Europe, especially the UK. She also explained the control measures adopted in Hong Kong over imported beef products which were in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Office International Des Epizooties (OIE). Regarding fresh beef consumed locally, Dr Tam explained that all were from live cattle imported from the Mainland and slaughtered in Hong Kong. The Mainland was BSE free and all Mainland cattle were fed on fodder of plant origin as advised by the Ministry of Agriculture, PRC. There was no beef cattle or sheep industry in Hong Kong.

20. Noting the advice of Centers For Disease Control and Prevention of USA that the chances of Asians catching vCJD were extremely small because Asians did not consume a lot of beef and most of the beef consumed was from the US and Australia which were BSE free, a Member said that we should not be too complacent as Chinese people also liked to consume cattle spinal cords and offal. In response, Dr Tam said that most of these products consumed in Hong Kong were imported from Brazil and Argentina which were BSE-free. Dr Leung added that cattle spinal cords and offal were not allowed to be imported from places where there were reported cases of BSE.

21. The Member said that the victim in the most recent CJD case reported locally was so young (in his forties) that he was unlikely to be affected by CJD. He asked if postmortem examination had been done on the victim. In response, Dr L Y Tse said that the doctor-in-charge had diagnosed the victim by clinical presentation and special investigations including electroencephalography and concluded that he was affected by CJD but not vCJD. Postmortem examination was not considered necessary.

22. Addressing Mrs Yam's enquiry on the relationship between BSE and vCJD, Dr Tam explained that the brain tissues of the BSE-infected cattle and the vCJD-infected human both appeared like sponge and were found to contain prions. Such scientific evidence suggested that BSE and vCJD belonged to the same family of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy. However, the suggestion that vCJD was caused by ingestion of food contaminated by affected bovine central nervous system tissue was not fully proven scientifically. She also said that apart from the prion theory, another theory was that the causative agent of BSE was due to trace elements.

23. A Member asked why postmortem examination on live cattle was not conducted in local slaughterhouse whereas such examination was conducted in the US. Dr Tam said that the antemortem examination conducted in the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse was effective in checking whether the cattle were free of any clinical signs of diseases. Postmortem examination involved examination of the brain tissues and required laboratory and technical set up. This could not be included as part of the regular slaughtering procedure in the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse.

24. Upon a Member's enquiry about BSE-specific control over imported beef processed products like sausages, Dr Tam said that the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) through the liaison with the consulates of the EU countries in mid 2000 had sought these countries' agreement to provide BSE-specific health assurance for every consignment of beef products including processed products.

25. Dr Leung said that appropriate control measures were imposed taking into account of the risk assessment of individual beef products. Hence, high-risk parts (e.g. brain and spinal cords) which were found to contain prions from BSE infected territories should be removed from human food chain. However, prions had not been found in beef meat. Similarly, milk and milk products were considered safe.

26. In response to a Member's query about the import control over meat and bone meal in Hong Kong, Mrs Wei replied that the Public Health (Animals and Birds) Ordinance (Cap. 139) only regulated import of live animals, but not animal feed. As a precautionary measure, the Administration intended to amend the Ordinance to strengthen controls over potentially hazardous components in animal feed. Mrs Wei went on to say that meat and bone meal had not been imported from the UK since 1997. According to the information from local farmers, fish meal rather than meat and bone meal was now used as the source of animal protein in feeding pigs and poultry which were not naturally susceptible to TSE and were not regarded as a cause of vCJD in humans. Mrs Lau added that there was no cattle industry in Hong Kong.

27. Dr Chan asked whether it was safe to consume cattle tongues and tails. Dr Leung replied that as cattle tails did not contain nervous tissues, they were considered safe for human consumption. Cattle tongues at present were not regarded as specified risk materials. The general principle was that tissues nearer to the central nervous system were believed to a have higher risk of containing BSE agent.

28. In response to the Chairman's query, Mrs Lau said that the Mainland authority also imposed BSE-specific import control over imported beef and beef products.

29. Mr Tang invited FEHD to brief Members on the considerations taken into account in deciding whether an import ban would be imposed on beef and beef products from BSE infected countries. Dr Tam said that an import ban was imposed on beef from the UK in 1996 when vCJD was first found in the UK and the relationship between vCJD and BSE was not fully known to scientists. At that time, Hong Kong acted in line with other jurisdictions to impose an import ban on the beef from the UK so as to eliminate the anxiety of consumers and to restore the market order. Since then, scientists had gained considerable advances in BSE and vCJD research and a series of BSE control measures had been recommended by international authorities such as the OIE. Mrs Lau added that Hong Kong had already put into place the BSE control measures as recommended by those international authorities which were considered effective at the moment. Noting that some other jurisdictions had imposed an import ban on the beef and beef products from Europe in the light of the recent upsurge in BSE incidence across Europe, FEHD would closely monitor the situation and if necessary, introduce additional control measures, including an import ban.

Agenda Item 5: Food Surveillance Results in 2000

30. The Chairman said that the paper "Food Surveillance Results in 2000" served to brief Members of the food surveillance results of 2000. As FEHD would announce the results in a press conference to be held in early March, he would not disclose the discussion of this agenda item in the media briefing session after the meeting. Dr Tam introduced the paper.

31. A Member commended FEHD's efforts in food surveillance and urged the Department to continue to step up its efforts in this area. Mrs Lau responded that the most cost-effective way to ensure food safety was to exercise control at source. To this end, FEHD had been actively encouraging the food trade to observe hygiene and safety standards in preparing food, promoting the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point concept to the trade, and introducing the Food Hygiene Manager system to the food trade. FEHD had also been stepping up efforts to educate the public on how to ensure food safety. Regarding food surveillance, the local sampling rate of eight samples per 1000 population per annum was well above the general international reference of three samples. It might not be cost effective to allocate more resources on food surveillance. Dr Chan shared the same views.

32. Noting that 335 out of 343 prosecution cases heard were convicted, a Member asked what were the results of the remaining cases heard. He commented and another Member concurred that the fines meted out by the Courts did not seem to be high enough to have the desired deterrent effect. Dr Tam said that of the remaining eight cases heard, seven were pending ruling and one was acquitted. Mrs Lau said that FEHD in consultation with the Department of Justice would lodge appeal against any ruling if it was in the interest of public health to do so.

33. A Member concurred that it was more effective to exercise control at source to ensure food safety. He suggested that more resources should be allocated to educate the public on food safety through TV advertisements and school education. He also suggested that the public should be educated on how to store the leftovers in refrigerators properly and to thoroughly reheat them before consumption in order to prevent food poisoning by Bacillus cereus. Another Member cautioned that there were limitations in controlling at source to ensure food safety because bacteria could breed at any stage before the food item was consumed.

34. A Member said that Vibrio parahaemolyticus was the most prominent incriminated pathogen for food poisoning incidents. He asked why this pathogen did not appear in the list of incriminated pathogens under food surveillance. He also asked what was the most common pathogen in food poisoning incidents. Dr Tam said that Vibrio parahaemolyticus had also been found in the food samples drawn, although this bacteria was not amongst the commonly found ones. She said that the list of common pathogens found in food surveillance might not be the same as that found in food poisoning incidents due to post-sale cross contamination. Dr Chan said that the most common pathogens found in food poisoning incidents was Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Salmonella spp also appeared in the list and ranked the third. A Member asked whether Campylobacter jejuni was found in food poisoning incidents. Dr Chan replied in the affirmative.

35. A Member said that whether contaminated food would lead to food poisoning depended on the quantity of the contaminated food consumed, the severity of the pathogen and the immune system of the person in question. It was therefore possible to have some discrepancies between the list of pathogens in food surveillance and that in food poisoning incidents.

36. Another Member asked whether FEHD took proactive actions to draw food samples for surveillance or only acted on reported food incidents. Dr Chan said that the Department of Health (DH) acted on report of food poisoning cases to find out the source of contamination and the pathogens involved. On the other hand, FEHD's food surveillance programme involved ongoing collection of food samples from the market for testing. Mrs Lau added that in case of food poisoning incidents due to victims having consumed problematic food in food premises, FEHD's staff including health inspectors and nurses paid visits to the food premises in question to find out whether there was any malpractice in food handling and to educate the food handlers on the proper method. Such division of labour between FEHD and DH in dealing with food poisoning incidents had been working well.

37. Another Member asked why radioactivity testing was conducted and what was the result. Dr Tam said that since the operation of the Daya Bay Nuclear Plant, samples had been drawn from food imported through Man Kam To for radioactivity testing and about 1 300 samples were drawn each year. Rapid tests were conducted at Man Kam To and suspected samples were sent to the Government Laboratory for further testing. No failure had ever been found.

38. A Member said that some food items like spice had undergone irradiation for the control of micro-organisms and insect pests. He asked whether such irradiated food items were tested and whether there was any labelling requirement for irradiation exceeding a certain limit. Dr Leung replied that irradiation was commonly used in the United States and recommended by the World Health Organization. The level of irradiation in food items however was not detectable. He undertook to submit a paper on this subject for the Council's information later.

Agenda Item 6: Any other business

Foot and Mouth Disease in Pigs

39. The Chairman said that there was wide media concern recently over Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in pigs. He invited Mrs Wei to give a verbal report on the issue.

40. Mrs Wei said that FMD was a contagious animal disease transmitted amongst cloven-hoofed animals, mainly amongst pigs in Hong Kong. FMD was not a public health hazard. The risk of human infection was extremely small. It usually occurred in relation to occupational exposure as in farm workers. Food-borne transmission was extremely unlikely as the virus was readily destroyed through normal cooking. Internationally, there were two approaches to control FMD. The first one, usually used in places with newly found FMD case, was to kill all the infected animals and those in contact with the infected ones. The other one was to use vaccine, a control method adopted in places where FMD was endemic such as Hong Kong. In the light of the FMD outbreak in the UK a couple of weeks ago, Hong Kong had imposed a ban on the import of pigs from the UK. This was a precautionary measure as all live pigs for food consumption were imported from the Mainland and no breeders had been imported from the UK for quite a few years.

41. Mrs Wei went on to say that FMD occurred on local pig farms every year and there was no evidence to suggest that FMD was more serious this year than in previous years. The confirmed number of infected pigs ranged from a thousand to some ten of thousands every year. However, this was believed to be under-reported as some pig farmers chose not to report. Before the peak season of infection in winter, AFCD would send letters to individual pig farmers to remind them to vaccinate their pigs against the disease. AFCD reported all FMD cases to the OIE and worked closely with international experts in FMD. Farmers were also regularly reminded to dispose of carcasses of dead pigs at authorized collection points.

42. A Member suggested that farmers should be encouraged to send dead animal remains to AFCD for postmortem examination so that AFCD could gather information on the types of diseases causing fatalities in local animals. This could also help resolve the problem of under-reporting. Dr Sims said that a system was already in place to encourage farmers to send animals to AFCD for disease diagnosis.

43. Dr Chan said that the problem of under-reporting should be dealt with as it was an international obligation to report FMD cases to OIE. Mrs Wei said that surveillance of infectious diseases in animals was much more difficult than surveillance of infectious diseases in humans. For human cases, we could depend on the medical system but for animal cases, we had to rely on the cooperation of farmers. To tackle the problem of under-reporting, AFCD had been gathering information about diseases affecting local animals through its farm surveillance programme and intelligence collected. To better keep track of the diseases that might affect local pigs, AFCD had established a serum bank through collection of 300 serum samples from local pigs at slaughterhouses every three months. Postmortem examination on dead remains was another standing practice. Dr Sims pointed out that under-reporting of animal diseases was common across South East Asia. Apart from statistics, the more important information provided to OIE included whether there was any evidence of change in prevalence of diseases and any monitoring system to control the diseases. He added that OIE was satisfied with the reports on FMD so far made by Hong Kong.

44. A Member asked whether 50% of the farms involving 100 000 pigs were affected by FMD this year as reported by the press. He also asked whether the Administration would consider stepping up enforcement actions against unauthorized disposal of pig carcasses. Mrs Wei said that the number of confirmed FMD cases kept by AFCD was lower than the number reported in the media. While the problem of under-reporting existed, the number reported by the media was believed to be on the high side.

45. Mrs Lau said that FEHD employed a contractor to collect carcasses of dead animals including pigs died of various reasons from 78 designated collection points for disposal at the landfill. No fee was charged on farmers and they were encouraged to dispose of the carcasses at these designated collection points. However, some farmers still refused to cooperate and dispose of the carcasses at unauthorized locations. Considerations would be given to explore how the pig carcasses collected could be traced to the farm of origin.

46. Addressing a Member's remarks, Mrs Lau said that it was already against the law to dispose of pig carcasses at unauthorized locations. However, it was difficult to catch such uncooperative farmers red handed because they usually disposed of the carcasses in the early hours of the day and at very remote areas in the New Territories. A Member commented that strengthening the penalty level could deter unauthorized disposal of pig carcasses. Another Member suggested that farmers should be required to keep records on where their pigs were sold or disposed of.

47. A Member suggested that the Government should take a more proactive approach in disseminating information about the local situation to the media in the event of a disease outbreak in other territories. This would help ensure that the media would not obtain false or misleading information and avoid any unnecessary public panic.

48. The meeting noted that FMD was not a serious problem in Hong Kong as reported by the media. The Administration would consider measures to tackle the problem of under-reporting of animal diseases by local farms and step up actions against disposal of pig carcasses at unauthorized locations.

49. There being no other issues, the meeting ended at 5:45 p.m.

Secretariat
Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene
Environment and Food Bureau
April 2001

 

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