Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene

Confirmed Minutes of the Eighth Meeting
held at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, 5 July 2001
at Room 1007, 10/F Citibank Tower, Garden Road


Dr TSE Chi-wai, Daniel (Chairman)
Mr CHAN Bing-woon  
Mr Peter HUNG  
Dr Anthony Edward JAMES  
Mr KAN Chung-nin, Tony  
Professor KWAN Hoi-shan  
Mrs LAM WONG Pik-har, Grace  
Mr LEE Luen-wai, John  
Mr LO Yau-lai, Winston  
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
Ms Priscilla TO (Acting secretary)

Absent with Apologies

Dr HO Dit-sang, John
Miss Leonie KI
Dr Ronald LEUNG
Mr Eddy LI
Dr the Hon LO Wing-lok
Professor MA Ching-yung
Dr Margaret CHAN

Director of Health

In Attendance

Environment and Food Bureau

Mrs Ingrid YEUNG Acting Deputy Secretary for the Environment and Food

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department

Dr Trevor ELLIS Acting Assistant Director (Agriculture, Quarantine and Inspection)

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department

Dr S P MAK Deputy Director (Food and Public Health)
Mr W H CHEUK Deputy Director (Environmental Hygiene)
Dr Gloria TAM Assistant Director (Food Surveillance & Control)
Dr Clive CHAN Senior Medical Officer (Food Incidents Response & Management)

Department of Health

Dr L Y TSE Consultant (Community Medicine)

Opening Remarks

The Chairman welcomed Members to the meeting. He introduced to Members Dr S P MAK who had taken over from Dr P Y LEUNG as Deputy Director (Food & Public Health) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).

Agenda Item 1: Confirmation of Minutes of Last Meeting

2. Members confirmed the minutes of the last meeting as correct.

Agenda Item 2 : Matters arising from Minutes of Last Meeting

3. There was no matter arising from the minutes of last meeting.

Agenda Item 3: A Report on the Recent Avian Flu Incident

4. The Chairman invited Mrs Yeung to introduce the paper: a report on the avian flu which occurred in May and on the improvement measures that the Administration had or would put into place to minimize the risk of recurrence.

5. A Member asked whether the improvement measures were designed to minimize the risk of infection through all possible routes. Mrs Yeung answered in the affirmative. She said that for example, the proposal to require separate packing of carcasses and offal of ducks and geese for sale at retail outlets was aimed at preventing contamination of live chickens with viruses that might exist in waterfowls. The Member remarked that it was time to start considering the long-term solution to prevent the recurrence of avian flu, i.e. whether central slaughtering of chickens should be pursued.

6. The Member went on to ask how the new hygiene conditions and guidelines would be enforced. Mrs Lau said that before the reopening of the poultry retail outlets, the new conditions and guidelines were explained to retailers who were also reminded of the importance of maintaining good hygiene standard. In designing the new hygiene conditions and guidelines, FEHD had taken into account the operational need and difficulties of the retailers to ensure that the new requirements were practicable. A two-week grace period for the implementation of the hygiene requirements had been given to the retailers after the reopening of the retail outlets. Health Inspectors visited the outlets during the grace period to remind the retailers to comply with the hygiene requirements. Since the end of the grace period on 1 July, FEHD had been strictly enforcing the hygiene requirements. Warnings were given on non-compliance and consideration would be given to terminating the market tenancies/fresh provision shop licences for repeated infringement.

7. Mr Cheuk added that a total of some 1 500 verbal warnings had been given from 1 to 4 July. The number of warnings given every day was decreasing. Health Inspectors would inspect the shop/stall concerned again four days after a verbal warning had been given. Written warnings would be issued if there was still non-compliance. If any retailer received three written warnings within 12 months, his tenancy/licence would be terminated.

8. Mrs Yam said that the improvement measures could not completely eliminate the risk of having chickens infected with avian flu viruses. However, with the improvement measures in place, the surveillance system was more sensitive to the presence of avian flu virus and appropriate action could be taken in good time to safeguard public health.

9. A Member said that the virus found in the latest avian flu incident had its source in waterfowls as revealed by the nature of the genotypes of the virus. However, it was not possible to identify one single route through which the virus had passed to chickens. Given that avian flu viruses existed in nature, the purpose of the surveillance and monitoring programme was not to eradicate the viruses, but to prevent them from seeding our markets and developing into a new strain that might affect human health. The monthly rest day at the retail outlets was a very effective measure as it could break the cycle of any virus that might exist there.

10. Another Member asked whether there was any scientific basis for setting one rest day per month. The previous Member said that based on field and laboratory data, the virus reassortment process took about two months before the virus became pathogenic and could infect chickens. Having a cleansing day once a month would break the cycle of any virus that might exist in the retail outlets.

11. The latter Member asked why the carcasses of ducks and geese tested positive of H5 antibodies could still be released for sale. The former replied that it was not uncommon to find H5 viruses in waterfowls as they were natural carriers of such viruses. As H5 viruses existed mainly in the alimentary tract, the viscera had to be discarded but it was not necessary to discard the carcasses. Mrs Wei concurred.

12. Another Member asked whether avian flu viruses could be transmitted from mother to embryo. In response, the former Member said that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that avian flu viruses could be transmitted through placenta.

13. The Member expressed the concern about possible spread of avian flu by infected live poultry brought into Hong Kong by members of the public or by travelers who were infected by the disease themselves. Mrs Lau said that the law required all live poultry brought into Hong Kong to be accompanied by official health certificates from recognized authorities which stated that the imported poultry had been tested negative of H5 antibodies no more than five days before the day of importation. The law also required all live poultry to be slaughtered for food to be brought into Hong Kong at the Man Kam To Control Point. FEHD staff at the Control Point would collect blood samples from the imported live poultry for testing of H5 antibodies. With these legal requirements in place, it was actually not possible for the public to bring into Hong Kong any live poultry individually. Dr L Y Tse added that according to the experience gained from the 1997 avian flu outbreak with 18 people affected, the main mode of transmission was by direct contact with live poultry. The possibility of human to human transmission was very low.

14. A Member remarked that the ultimate solution to the problem of recurrence of avian flu might be central slaughtering of chickens. He suggested that the Government should start to encourage public discussion on this subject. The Chairman concurred.

15. In response to another Member's query, Mrs Lau said that the density of chickens in cages at retail outlets was about one chicken per a A4-sized paper. If chicken mortality rate in any stall/shop reached 5%, measures would be stepped up to investigate into the cause of the increase in mortality and to monitor the chicken mortality rate in retail markets more closely.

16. The Member asked why dressed poultry were seized from the retail and wholesale markets in the latest avian flu outbreak. Mrs Yam replied that as retail markets had to be declared infected places and closed, there was no outlet for the sale of the dressed poultry. So they had to be destroyed.

17. The Member said that the live poultry trade would be seriously affected if central slaughtering of chickens were to be pursued. He remarked that the significant social implications should be carefully considered. He suggested that other options like selling live poultry at dedicated markets to minimize the contact of live poultry with the public should also be explored. Mrs Yam said that in considering various options as part of a longer-term solution, the economic costs to the whole community would have to be carefully assessed against the need to protect public health.

18. In response to a Member's enquiry on resources dedicated to avian flu academic research, another Member said that the University of Hong Kong spent about $4 million each year on research into avian flu. The purpose of such research was not to eradicate avian flu viruses but to prevent the viruses from reassorting into types that could affect human health.

19. Addressing a Member's question on whether there had been avian influenza outbreaks in the Mainland, Dr Tam said that according to the requirement of the Office International Des Epizooties (OIE), member states should report outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Since 1952, there had been 20 incidents of HPAI outbreaks reported to OIE and none of these incidents occurred in the Mainland. Another Member asked whether the Mainland had put in place a comprehensive surveillance system to monitor HPAI. Dr Tam said that as revealed from regular exchanges with the relevant Mainland authorities, the Mainland's HPAI surveillance system was in line with international requirement. In fact, after the 1997 avian flu incident in Hong Kong, the World Health Organization and OIE had sent delegations to various provinces of the Mainland and concluded that there was no evidence of any outbreak of avian flu amongst poultry or humans in that period in the Mainland.

20. A Member asked whether it was possible that the chickens got infected when they were transported to Hong Kong from the Mainland or at retail markets as the chickens were crowded together in cages. Mrs Lau said that there was a strictly enforced standard on the maximum number of chickens per cage when the chickens were transported to Hong Kong to prevent overcrowding. For poultry stalls in retail markets, a new requirement had been put into place since the reopening of poultry stalls to limit the number of chickens in each cage.

21. A Member suggested that discussion/research on the long-term solution to prevent recurrence of avian flu outbreak should be encouraged amongst tertiary institutes. Mrs Yam agreed and urged Members to help promote community discussion on the subject.

22. Another Member said that the new generation preferred to patronize supermarkets and super stores rather than traditional wet markets. As only chilled poultry were sold at those super stores, public acceptance of chilled poultry might gradually increase over time. Mrs Lau said that to minimize contact between humans and live poultry, all newly issued fresh provision shop licences would no longer allow sale of live poultry.

23. The meeting supported the improvement measures as set out in the paper.

Agenda Item 4 : Reducing the Risk posed by Quail in the Development of H5N1 viruses

24. The Chairman said that the purpose of the paper was to explain the Administration's proposal to separate live quails from other live birds during transportation and at retail level and seek Members' views on the proposal. Dr Ellis presented the paper.

25. A Member asked about the consumption of live quails as compared to live chickens in Hong Kong and the trade's reaction to the proposed segregation. Mrs Wei said that Hong Kong consumed about 4.5 million live quails each year, as compared to about 36 million live chickens. In Hong Kong, there were five quail farms of which only three were actively engaged in production. Amongst these three farms, one reared live quails while the other two produced quail eggs. Imported live quails were all from the Mainland and were sent to the Cheung Sha Wan Temporary Wholesale Poultry Market for distribution to the retail outlets. No wholesaler was solely engaged in wholesaling of live quails. The trade had no major objection to the proposal as live quails were only sideline products but requested the Government to compensate them.

26. Mrs Yam pointed out that the proposal was not to ban the sale of live quails, but only to require them to be segregated from other live birds. While there was no strong objection from the trade to the proposal in principle, the appropriate level of compensation would have to be worked out.

27. In response to the Chairman's query, Mrs Wei said that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) was consulting the quail farmers on the proposal. AFCD could provide technical assistance and low interest loan to the farmers to help them change to rearing of live chickens or pigeons or production of quail eggs. AFCD was also exploring the kind of assistance that the Government could offer if the farmers decided to close their farms.

28. The meeting noted that the genetic analysis of the 1997 H5N1 virus strongly suggested that the virus was derived from a recombination of a goose-type H5N1 virus with a quail-type H9N2 virus and an H6N1 virus. In view of such scientific evidence, the meeting supported the proposal and considered that it would further safeguard public health.

Agenda Item 5: Any Other Business

29. Dr L Y TSE gave a verbal report on the cases of cholera that occurred in early June. Six local cases of cholera were confirmed from 4 to 8 June. All of the cases were caused by Vibrio cholerae O1 E1 Tor Inaba. FEHD and the Department of Health had worked conscientiously to trace the source of the bacterium but to no avail. Public education had been stepped up to remind the public of the proper way of handling food. FEHD had also stepped up inspection of food premises.

30. Dr Mak said that apart from the special investigation on cholera cases, FEHD also monitored the presence of Vibrio cholerae in its food surveillance programme and testing of fish tank water at restaurants. Mr Cheuk added that upon notification of the cases, FEHD had launched special operation to inspect food premises selling high-risk food items such as siu mei and lo-mei. Over 700 warnings and 200 summonses had been issued to food operators for breach of hygiene requirements.

31. A Member said that publicity should be stepped up to educate the public of the importance of maintaining good personal hygiene in summer and to remind them not to patronize unhygienic food premises. Dr L Y TSE replied that publicity had been stepped up since late May and efforts on public education would continue.

Agenda Item 6: Any other business

32. The next meeting would be held on 6 September 2001.

33. There being no other issues, the meeting ended at 4:25 p.m.

Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene
Environment and Food Bureau
August 2001