Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene

FOOD LABELLING

PURPOSE

This paper seeks Members' views on the Government's proposals on nutrition labelling and the regulation of genetically modified (GM) food.

BACKGROUND

Nutrition information on food labels

2. Nutrients are vital to human for growth and maintenance of good health. As consumers' awareness of the association between diet and health increases, there is an increasing demand for information about nutrients contained in food intended for human consumption such that consumers can make healthy food choices, and hence reduce the risk of certain diseases and conditions, such as obesity. Our existing legislation does not provide for any specification on nutrition information on food labels. Although quite a large percentage of prepackaged foods sold in Hong Kong carry nutrition labels, the information presented and the formats used are not consistent. Hence, consumers may find the information provided on the food labels difficult to comprehend, and in some cases, misleading.

3. In 2001/02, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) conducted a feasibility study on nutrition labelling and examined a range of options for implementation. The feasibility study also looked into the different international practices in overseas jurisdictions as well as the labelling guidelines issued by the Codex Alimentarius Commission1 (Codex). A market survey was conducted at the same time to determine the prevalence of nutrition labels and related claims and to examine the contents of nutrition labels. Following the completion of the feasibility study, we have come to the conclusion that our policy objectives of protecting public health and ensuring food safety can best be achieved through the implementation of a mandatory nutrition labelling system by phases.

GM food

4. The Administration conducted a public consultation exercise on the labelling of GM food from February to May 2001. The results of the public consultation were presented to the Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene (ACFEH) in November 2001 and the LegCo Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene in December 2001. As there was concern about the possible price rise after the introduction of a mandatory positive GM food labelling system, the ACFEH recommended that a regulatory impact assessment (RIA) on the labelling of GM food in Hong Kong be conducted. A consultant was appointed to conduct a RIA in April 2002 to assess the economic impact of introducing a labelling scheme on packaged GM food. The RIA was completed in March 2003. A copy of the Executive Summary of the RIA prepared by the Consultant is at Annex. The assessment indicates that there will be no increases in costs to the food trade under a voluntary labelling scheme. However, there will be some cost increases to the trade if a mandatory scheme is to be implemented. And the cost implications to the small and medium enterprises would be significant because they would have difficulties, among others, in securing contractual agreements with product manufacturers with regard to the product's GM status. The RIA also identified a number of barriers to implementation, which include the lack of international consensus of GM labelling and testing, and the lack of international standards on Identity Preservation and similar documentation systems for certifying the GM content of products.

5. Having considered the results of the RIA, the adverse impact on the small and medium enterprises and the need to proactively address the issue of the safety of GM foods in the future, we consider that it would be appropriate to introduce a pre-market safety assessment requirement for GM ingredients to be supplemented by a system of voluntary labelling.

PROPOSALS

Proposal on nutrition labelling

6. To ensure that the declaration of nutrition information is consistent across all prepackaged food on sale in Hong Kong and to protect the consumers from false claims, it is necessary to implement a labelling scheme on nutrition information. This is also in line with Codex guidelines and the best international practice.

7. We propose to implement a mandatory labelling scheme on nutrition information by phases. In the initial stage, food suppliers who choose on a voluntary basis to carry nutrition information, nutrition claims and function claims on their products are required to follow a prescribed format. After a reasonable period of time of about five to ten years for food suppliers and consumers to familiarize with the new regulations, the requirements for nutrition labelling would be made mandatory and cover all prepackaged food products. The labelling scheme on nutrition information will be defined as the quantitative listing of nutrient values of a food. In accordance with international practice and local health considerations, we will require a nutrition label, if presented, to list out a set of core nutrients such as energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat. The level of nutrients should be expressed as absolute amount (in metric units) per 100g or 100ml of food.

8. As regards nutrition claims, both nutrient content and comparative claims would be allowed but these claims would be limited to those relating to the set of core nutrients to be prescribed by us. For nutrient content claims e.g. "high calcium", "low fat", they must contain a minimum or maximum level of that specific nutrient so that the claim is justified. For comparative claims e.g. "Reduced fat - 25% less than the regular product of the same brand", they must specify on the label, among others, the minimum difference in nutrient content between the compared foods.

9. As regards nutrient function claims e.g. calcium aids in the development of strong bones and teeth, we propose that only those nutrients that are included in the list as laid down in the Codex guidelines can be the subjects of function claims. Health claims such as "regulate blood glucose of diabetic patients" will be dealt with separately through the regulation of health claims.

Proposal on the regulation of GM food

Pre-market safety assessment of GM food

10. As a precautionary measure, many developed countries have established mechanisms to evaluate the safety of GM food. The World Health Organisation and Codex have recommended their Member States to set up regulatory framework for pre-market evaluation of GM food. Places like Canada, member countries of the European Union, Australia, Japan, Mainland China and Taiwan have already implemented similar safety assessment schemes.

11. Although GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to be harmful to human health, such situation may change and the current local regulatory framework may not suffice in ensuring future GM foods that will be available in the local market are also safe. Furthermore, as more varieties of GM food from different places of origin may appear in the market in future, it is appropriate to introduce a mandatory pre-market safety assessment to ensure the safety of new GM food intended for human consumption before they are allowed to be put on the market. Safety assessment of GM ingredients is based upon scientific principles and guidelines developed by Codex. It is the normal practice for overseas developers of GM ingredients (i.e. biotechnology companies) to conduct safety assessment of their GM ingredients according to the guidelines prior to marketing them. During the safety assessment process, they will identify whether a hazard, nutritional, toxic, allergenic or other safety concern is present. If a new or altered hazard is identified, the risk associated with it would be characterized to determine its relevance to human health.

12. We propose to introduce a requirement of pre-market safety assessment for food containing GM ingredients. Under the proposed scheme, importers or manufacturers of food containing GM ingredients will be required to submit documents and certificates to FEHD, prior to importing the food to Hong Kong, detailing the safety assessments that have been conducted by the developer of the GM ingredients (i.e. biotechnology companies). The assessment should be carried out in accordance with the guidelines prepared by Codex. The results of evaluations conducted on the ingredients by overseas regulatory authorities should also be submitted, which FEHD will take into account in the pre-market safety assessment. Food containing GM ingredients that have passed the safety assessment can be sold in Hong Kong. Such safety assessments will enable the FEHD to determine whether the developers of GM ingredients have adequately addressed the safety issues. The same principles and evaluation regime are adopted by food regulatory authorities of developed economies worldwide. This will also prevent Hong Kong from becoming a dumping ground for GM food which may pose a risk to human health. To minimise the impact on the trade, a grace period would be granted to those GM products that are already in the market.

13. Over a period of time, FEHD will be able to build up a list of approved GM ingredients based on the applications made by the importers and manufacturers. The list will be publicised and updated regularly for public reference. It is the responsibility of the importers and manufacturers to find out if their products contain only approved GM ingredients, and if so, the food may be imported without any further safety assessment. For food containing GM ingredients not on the approved list, an application to FEHD for pre-market safety assessment will be required.

14. To ensure that food containing unapproved GM ingredients are not on sale in the local market, FEHD will take food samples from the market for testing of unapproved GM varieties from time to time. Unapproved GM products would be required to be removed from the market, and the importers will be prosecuted.

Voluntary labelling of GM food

15. At present, there is no international consensus on the labelling of GM food. There is also a lack of strong justification for the labelling of GM food on food safety grounds. That being the case, encouraging the trade to adopt a voluntary labelling system may be a practical alternative to address some consumers' demand of making informed choices. Since negative claims on GM food are common in the local market, with some of them misleading, standardizing the terminology of, and developing a set of general guidelines on GM labelling may help the trade in making truthful GM claims. We therefore propose to issue a set of guidelines on the labelling of GM food and encourage the trade to adopt voluntary labelling in accordance with the guidelines. The proposed guidelines would provide reference to the trade in making truthful positive and negative labels. Standardized terminologies and overarching principles underlying the recommended labelling approaches would be included in the guidelines.

ADVICE SOUGHT

16. Members are invited to comment on our proposals as set out in paragraphs 6 to 15 above.

NEXT STEPS

17. Taking into account any views Members may have, we will proceed to consult the public, the food trade and other organizations on our nutrition labelling proposal in 2003. The Department of Health and FEHD will also launch a public education programme on nutrition and nutrition information on food labels.

18. Regarding the regulation of GM food, we will work out the details of the pre-market safety assessment requirement and consult the trade and related organizations on our proposal in due course. We will also draw up a set of voluntary labelling guidelines in consultation with the trade and relevant organizations.

Health, Welfare and Food Bureau
March 2003



1 The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The main purposes of this Programme are protecting health of the consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the food trade, and promoting coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

 

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