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Watchdog slams bad fruit and veg checks

Local | Sophie Hui Nov 14, 2017
Safety checks on imported vegetables and fruits are sloppy while test results take too long, says the Ombudsman.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is simply too lax in checking on vegetables and fruits. In an investigation, the Ombudsman found that the department's officers' sampling checks at Man Kam To border point - the land crossing for vegetables from the mainland - were rough and ineffective.

The watchdog said that from on-site observations, there is a heavy flow of vegetable-laden lorries going through the Man Kam To Office. To minimize stoppage time officers take samplings quickly, and the workers of the FEHD's contractor only checked vegetables put near truck doors, not those further inside.

"If they only checked those near the truck doors, firstly, it is not representative enough. Secondly, it would be easier to let people think that it is enough as only those [near doors] are of good quality," Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said.

The watchdog found officers rarely checked trucks laden with fruits. It suggested the FEHD provide guidelines to staff on how to conduct effective sampling checks.

About 50 percent of vegetables and 80 percent of fruits are imported by sea, but the FEHD did not make routine checks at Kwai Chung checkpoint or at importers' warehouses or cold storages until recently.

Lau said the situation was undesirable as there were fewer safeguards for public health. She said testing samples were mainly taken at wholesale and retail outlets, and therefore most of the fruits and vegetables imported by sea would have already being sold in the market. But the FEHD recently launched a trial scheme to sample fruits and vegetables imported by sea at warehouses or cold storages.

Currently, tests conducted in the laboratory at Man Kam To Office or those requiring urgent checking only took two working days, but it took 19 working days to test those from other checkpoints in government laboratories, from sending samples to the lab to the results being issued.

Lau said the testing time should be shortened. "We do think that 19 days is relatively long for vegetables and fruits so we think that there should be measures to speed up this so the fruit we eat, even if the results are bad, then they can be exposed sooner," she said.

The watchdog also said Hong Kong's safety guidelines on food are badly outdated and standards should be updated soon.

The FEHD also generally agreed with the comments and recommendations from the Ombudsman, and had also implemented some of the suggestions.

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October 2018