Gutter oil scare spawns call for tough laws

Updated: 2013-01-04 06:35

By Timothy Chui(HK Edition)

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Lawmakers are calling on the administration to introduce, immediately, stricter laws regulating the quality of cooking oils, following a mid-December scare that so-called gutter oil was being sold in the city.

The appeal came at a special Legislative Council Food Safety Panel session on Thursday. The meeting was convened after local media reported a suspected unlicensed food processor had been supplying to 13 local restaurants substandard or gutter oil containing high levels of the human carcinogen Benzoapurene (BaP).

Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said an investigation turned up no evidence of gutter oil in city restaurants and called for a more cautious approach.

"As far as we understand it, the mainland monitoring authority is still working on methods for identifying gutter oil and the related testing standards. There does not exist, at present, an established scientific method for identifying gutter oil," he said.

The issue has raised hackles in Hong Kong after a string of similar stories were discovered on the mainland since 2000. Since then, the central government has made production and sale of gutter oil a capital crime.

Locally, oil producers and refiners must hold a valid food factory license, while importers are required to have documentation of their products' upstream supply chain.

Re-bottlers and canners of edible oils from bulk sources are exempted from license requirements.

The issue confronting the government is two-fold. The administration is considering how to deal with levels of BaP in cooking oils, as well as whether oil re-bottlers should come under more government regulation.

There is a lack of international consensus on acceptable levels of BaP in oils. However, the European Union (EU) has set a level of 2 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg), while the national standard sits at 10 mcg/kg.

Ko said the administration will consult with experts in the middle of the month, stressing that health standards around BaP were still evolving on the international level and any threshold should be based on scientific principles.

Inspection of re-bottlers would be stepped up, but Ko shied away from full registration or legislation, arguing re-bottling was not a high risk process and that it had been around for a long time. "We'll need to assess the impact. Extreme measures may adversely affect retailers.We must weigh the considerations," he said.

Catering sector lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan said an informal and ongoing poll of his constituents found 80 percent of more than 200 establishments were in favor of adopting a licensing regime for oil re-bottlers, as well as limits to be fixed at EU levels.

Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-kun called for immediate action, hoping the administration did not drag its heels until it was confronted by a preventable fatality.

Centre for Food Safety consultant Ho Yuk-yin said BaP was ubiquitous throughout food supply and environment, which at 20 mcg/kg did pose a health risk.

He said the government would recall products on a mandatory basis if high levels were found or take enforcement action if the level exceeded 10 mcg/kg.

The government will scrutinize food test samples for BaP from now on. The city's testing regime took an average of nine samples per 1,000 residents - a notch above other developed economies which average eight samples per 1,000 residents.

Ko added the national State General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine was notified if any recalled oil was sent back to the mainland to ensure it was not recirculated through the food supply.

The panel will reconvene on Jan 8 to hear from deputations.

(HK Edition 01/04/2013 page1)