Food scares put Hong Kong's reputation on the line

With Hong Kong's reputation in many respects on the line, lawmakers there have castigated the government for failing to alert the public immediately after it found a suspected cancer-causing chemical malachite green in some fish from China.

They say it had put the lives of residents at risk.

The government apparently reported to Chinese authorities on Saturday afternoon that it had discovered the chemical in some freshwater fish, but the public were not alerted until Sunday night.

As Hong Kong gets most of its fish and other food supplies from mainland China, there is very real concern.

Wong Yung-kan of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has said the public have a right to know about such issues and to choose whether to eat freshwater fish from China.

In defence the government has said the levels of the chemical found were low and said a ban would have been unfair because many other species were not affected, which is why the public were not told sooner.

It seems that thirty percent of the fish tested last week showed traces of malachite green, which has been found to be carcinogenic in rats.

The chemical, which has been used widely by fish farmers to kill parasites, is banned in many countries, including China.

This latest health scare adds to a growing list of food items that people in Asia's self proclaimed 'gourmet paradise' are avoiding.

Hong Kong has experienced a slump in pork sales since the outbreak of a pig-borne disease in the mainland in June has killed almost 40 people.

Many people are now also refusing to eat eel after the Chinese media reported last week that southern Guangdong province had banned exports of eel after malachite green was found in eels in two provinces.

To date as much as 90 percent of the eels and eel products inspected in Hong Kong have tested positive for the chemical.

By Monday Chinese exports of freshwater fish to Hong Kong had slowed to a trickle as mainland China stepped up health checks.

However, Chris Wong, a biology associate professor at the Baptist University, called for calm, explaining that the studies exposed the rats to high concentrations of the chemical for a long time before they became at risk of getting cancer.

Wong who represents the fisheries industry, says Hong Kong's government needs to be proactive and do a lot more to restore consumer confidence and not rely on health certificates from foreign exporters.

It was only after pressure from lawmakers that the government relented and tested freshwater fish.

Apparently eels and freshwater fish are sometimes bred in the same ponds in mainland China.

Others are urging the government to improve communication with mainland authorities and encourage more tests on mainland food imports.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and it has retained a high degree of autonomy which includes a separate health system.

But very often, the city only learns of health problems on the mainland through reports in Chinese or local media.

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