Advisory Council on Food and Environmental Hygiene

Confirmed Minutes of the Seventh Meeting
held at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, 17 May 2001
at Room 1007, 10/F Citibank Tower, Garden Road


Dr TSE Chi-wai, Daniel (Chairman)
Dr HO Dit-sang, John  
Dr Anthony Edward JAMES  
Mr KAN Chung-nin, Tony  
Miss Leonie KI  
Professor KWAN Hoi-shan  
Mrs LAM WONG Pik-har, Grace  
Mr Eddy LI  
Dr the Hon LO Wing-lok  
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
Miss Sara WU Acting Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene
Mrs Ingrid YEUNG (Secretary)

Absent with Apologies

Mr CHAN Bing-woon
Mr Peter HUNG
Mr LEE Luen-wai, John
Dr Ronald LEUNG
Professor MA Ching-yung
Dr Margaret CHAN

Director of Health

In Attendance

Environment and Food Bureau

Mrs Stella HUNG Deputy Secretary for the Environment and Food

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department

Dr Leslie SIMS Assistant Director (Agriculture, Quarantine and Inspection)

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department

Dr P Y LEUNG Deputy Director (Food and Public Health)
Dr Y Y HO Consultant (Community Medicine)
(Risk Assessment and Communication)

Department of Health

Dr L Y TSE Consultant (Community Medicine)

Opening Remarks

The Chairman welcomed Members to the meeting. He said that there were three new members for the new term, namely, Dr Anthony Edward James, Mr Eddy LI, and Mr Peter Hung. He also introduced Mrs Stella HUNG who had taken over from Mr Paul TANG as the Deputy Secretary for the Environment and Food to Members.

Agenda Item 1: Confirmation of Minutes of Last Meeting

2. Members agreed that the draft minutes of the last meeting held on 1 March 2001 were confirmed, subject to the incorporation of a Member's comments of replacing "anti-bacterial processing" with "the control of micro-organisms and insect pests" in the first sentence of paragraph 38.

Agenda Item 2 : Matters arising from Minutes of Last Meeting

3. The Chairman said that during the discussion of the paper on "Food Surveillance Results in 2000" the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) had undertaken to present an information paper relating to the use of irradiation in food technology. The paper would be discussed under agenda item 4 at the meeting.

Agenda Item 3: Proposed amendments to the Public Health (Animals and Birds) Ordinance and Regulations (Cap. 139) to enhance the prevention and control of veterinary diseases

4. The Chairman said that the purpose of the paper was to seek Members' advice on the Administration's proposals to amend the Public Health (Animals and Birds) Ordinance and Regulations (Cap.139) ("the Ordinance and Regulations") to strengthen the ability to prevent and control veterinary diseases. He invited Dr Sims to introduce the paper.

5. Dr Sims explained in detail the Administration's proposals.

6. Noting that the Administration proposed to extend the control under the Ordinance and Regulations to cover "other articles used in conjunction with animals, birds and fish that may introduce disease", a Member said that the definition for such articles should be clearly stipulated in the law. He also remarked that considerations should be given to providing for appeals to the Administrative Appeals Board in respect of compensation for animals, birds or fish slaughtered by order of DAFC which was determined in accordance with the market value of such animals, birds or fish.

7. Another Member asked what was the rationale for giving compensation for the animals, birds or fish slaughtered by order of DAFC under the Ordinance and Regulations. He said that no compensation was given for the seizure of food items that were found unfit for human consumption under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132).

8. In response, Dr Sims said that the practice to give compensation for the animals slaughtered under order of DAFC for the protection of animal health was not out of step with the practice in other places outside Hong Kong. A Member added that the idea to give compensation was originated from the need to encourage farmers to be cooperative in reporting animal illnesses so that such illnesses would not go un-reported.

9. The meeting supported the proposals to enhance the prevention and control of veterinary diseases.

Agenda Item 4 : Use of Irradiation in Food Technology

10. The Chairman said that the purpose of the paper was to set out the application of irradiation in food technology, the related safety concerns and control measures. He invited Dr Y Y HO to present the paper.

11. Dr Y Y HO introduced the principles of food irradiation and explained that food irradiated by an appropriate dose was both safe to consume and nutritionally adequate. He also said that the Codex Almentarius Commission had already developed a set of labelling guidelines for irradiated food and there were also labelling requirements in Hon Kong for irradiated foods.

12. In response to a Member's query, Dr Y Y HO said that there was a wide variety of food, such as cereals, spices, meat and poultry products, to which irradiation technology could be applied for treatment.

13. Addressing another Member's query, Dr Leung said that the responsibility of ensuring compliance of the labelling requirements under the labelling legislation rested with the retailers.

14. A Member asked whether application of a high dose of irradiation could have any side effect on the food item concerned or make it unsafe for human consumption. Dr Y Y HO replied that irradiation to a high dose might affect the colour, odour or taste of the food item concerned, but would not make it unsafe for human consumption. Dr Leung added that the major concern over the doses of irradiation was more on occupational safety of the workers engaged in application of the technology.

15. In response to a Member's query, Dr Leung said that the existing labelling legislation did not require labelling of the doses of irradiation applied. It was a common practice for the trade to apply the optimal doses of irradiation to yield the best quality and to conduct quality assurance control over the food items.

16. Addressing another Member's question, Dr Y Y HO said that irradiated food should only account for a very low proportion of the food consumed in Hong Kong. However, the exact proportion was not available.

17. Upon another Member's enquiry, Dr Y Y HO said that the existing labelling legislation applied to prepackaged food and food sold in containers.

18. A Member asked whether there was any quantitative upper limit of the amount of free radicals in irradiated food and whether the presence of free radicals in food would have any effect on human health. Dr Y Y HO replied that the international authorities had studied the level of free radicals in irradiated food and concluded that irradiated food was not harmful to humans.

19. A Member observed that he seldom found food products with labels marked as irradiated food in the market despite that irradiation had been widely adopted in food technology in other places like the US. He raised concerns about the compliance of the labelling requirements. Dr Y Y HO said that FEHD carried out regular surveillance on the proper labelling of irradiated food. In 2000, 69 food samples were taken for detection of ionising treatment and six samples were found positive. These six food samples were spices.

20. Dr Leung remarked that as the international health authorities had concluded that food irradiation was effective in eliminating microbiological hazards and that irradiated food was safe to consume, it might be the appropriate time to start educating the public about irradiated food.

Agenda Item 5: Result of monitoring for H5 avian influenza viruses in markets

21. The Chairman said that the purpose of the paper was to brief Members of the results of the existing surveillance programme for H5 avian influenza viruses in markets. He asked Dr Leung to report the latest findings of the surveillance programme and the action to close the poultry retail outlets in the three markets on 16 May 2001. Dr Leung gave a verbal report.

22. Mrs Yam referred to a few media reports querying why action was not taken in early May. She explained that any decision to close the retail outlets concerned should not be taken lightly. As soon as the test result was available, the markets concerned were cleansed and surveillance in retail outlets was stepped up. The decision to close three markets was subsequently taken on 16 May on the basis of the extraordinarily high number of chicken deaths in one of the markets, the post-mortem examination of dead chickens and the fact that the virus had shown sign of mutation.

23. Mrs Yam went on to say that an investigation was being conducted to identify the points where contamination could have occurred. However, it would be difficult to pinpoint a single source.

24. A Member commended the concerned departments for the prompt actions taken in the incident. He supported the Administration's decision of not disclosing the surveillance result in early May as immature release of information would only cause unnecessary public panic. In response to the Member's query, Dr Leung said that apart from the slaughtering process, maintaining good hygiene condition of the retail outlets as a whole was also vital in preventing contamination. The Hygiene Code issued by FEHD for the live poultry retail outlets contained guidelines on proper handling of live poultry and maintenance of the hygiene condition of the outlets.

25. A Member supported the actions taken by the Administration in the incident. He remarked that the action to close the poultry retail outlets was based on scientific evidence, including an increased mortality rate of chickens, that the chickens had died of influenza and that the virus had signs of reassortment.

26. Another Member commended the risk management of the Administration in the incident. She remarked that in public health incidents of such nature, information should be disseminated by a limited number of spokesmen to avoid unnecessary misinterpretation of facts.

27. Another Member supported the Administration's actions and suggested that frequent briefing should be given to the media and the public to keep them abreast of the development.

28. A Member asked whether the retail poultry outlets in other markets would be closed if a high mortality rate of chickens was found in other markets. In response, Mrs Yam said that the situation was being closely maintained and the views of experts and professionals would be taken into account before making any such decision.

29. Another Member asked what measures would be stepped up to monitor the situation in other public markets. Mrs Yam replied that samples of dead chickens in other public markets would be sent for post-mortem examinations and thorough cleansing operation would be conducted at all other markets.

30. In response to the Member's query, Dr Sims said that influenza was an important disease among poultry and the authority of other places also took serious actions to prevent their poultry population from being infected by influenza viruses in order to protect their poultry trade. Mrs Wei added that the poultry industry of Hong Kong was different from that of many other places as Hong Kong had no export of live poultry. The actions taken in Hong Kong in respect of avian influenza mainly addressed public health issues instead of trade issues.

31. A Member asked whether in the long run the H5N1 influenza virus surveillance programme would also cover wild birds in Hong Kong. Dr Sims said that due to the availability of limited resources, the surveillance measures could mainly focus at the critical points including the farms, at the border, and in wholesale and retail markets.

32. The Chairman remarked that a comprehensive H5 avian influenza surveillance programme was already put in place. Mrs Yam added that the detection of H5N1 virus showed that our existing surveillance system was working well. But a review would be carried out and further improvements made as needed.

33. A Member opined that no surveillance system was foolproof. As long as there were live chickens for sale in public markets, the risk of an outbreak of avian influenza could not be eliminated. It might be time for the public to start considering whether in the long run they were willing to change the existing habits of purchasing live chickens at public markets for food. Mrs Yam said that it was an appropriate time for the community to start discussion on longer-term solutions, including whether there should be central slaughtering. The Chairman agreed that on considering the long-term solution, the public should balance the eating and purchasing habits with the risk of recurrence of an outbreak of avian influenza.

34. In response to a Member's query, Dr Sims said that it was not uncommon to find H5N1 virus in waterfowls as they were natural carriers of the virus. The Member asked why only viscera from a consignment of waterfowls were discarded but the carcasses could be released for sale when positive H5 blood testing results were found in that consignment. Dr Sims replied that H5 viruses existed in the guts and hence viscera were discarded for precautions. Another Member added that it was quite a common practice to isolate and discard the specific parts of the animals/birds contaminated with diseases and to release the rest of the animals/birds to the market for sale.

Agenda Item 6: Any other business

35. The next meeting would be held on 5 July 2001. Members noted that subsequent meetings were scheduled for the first Thursday of alternate months.

36. There being no other issues, the meeting ended at 5:00 p.m.

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