LCQ10: Labelling and product descriptions of seafood products
Following is a question by the Hon Chan Han-pan and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, in the Legislative Council today (February 22):
Earlier on, an environmental group found, after conducting sampling tests on frozen seafood products sold at supermarkets, that the packaging of over 80 per cent of the samples had not concurrently carried the species name, country of origin and production method of the products. The species of a few marine fish samples had even been mislabelled, with marine fish of cheaper species being labelled as species of twice the price, which might mislead consumers, and the retailers had allegedly contravened the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap. 362). In this connection, will the Government inform this Council of:
(1) the total number of complaints about seafood products received in the past five years by the Customs and Excise Department (C&E), the Centre for Food Safety (CFS), the Consumer Council and other relevant organisations; among them, of the respective numbers of (i) cases involving product labels or trade descriptions carrying false or misleading information and (ii) substantiated cases; how the authorities handled and followed up such cases;
(2) the number of raw seafood product samples tested by C&E and CFS in each of the past five years to ascertain whether the information carried by the product labels or trade descriptions was accurate; how the authorities followed up those cases in which laboratory test results had revealed that the relevant information was inaccurate, including whether they made public the details of such incidents; whether the authorities will step up efforts in conducting sampling tests; and v(3) the measures and law enforcement actions taken in the past five years by the authorities against those retailers who had been found for several times selling seafood products with product labels or trade descriptions carrying inaccurate information; whether the authorities will consider raising the penalty to enhance the deterrent effect?
The food labelling scheme under the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W) (the Regulations) aims to assist consumers in making informed food choices. It requires, among other things, that the food name or designation shall not be false or misleading as to the nature of the food. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) is the enforcement department of the Regulations.
On the other hand, the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap. 362) prohibits traders from applying false trade descriptions to the goods supplied in the course of trade. The Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) is the main enforcement agency of this ordinance.
In addition to the enforcement agencies, the Consumer Council (CC) also assists in handling complaints by means of conciliation.
The aforementioned agencies have an established mechanism of case referral so that problems are resolved by the most suitable means.
Having consulted the Food and Health Bureau, my consolidated reply to the three parts of the question is as follows:
(1) From 2012 to 2016, FEHD received a total of 3 236 complaints about seafood products. 64 of them involved label irregularities. The offender in one of the cases was prosecuted, convicted and fined $2,200 for breaching the Regulations. Three other cases concerning labelling problems are currently under investigation.
In the same period, C&ED received 109 complaints on seafood products sold at supermarkets, and commenced investigation into 64 cases pertaining to labels containing false trade description (Note). After investigation, C&ED initiated prosecution in four cases, all resulted in the traders' conviction, with fines ranging from $1,000 to $90,000. In two cases, C&ED issued warning letters or advisory letters to the respective traders; while investigation is under way in two other cases. In the remaining 56 cases, there was insufficient evidence of an offence.
In the same period, CC received 72 consumer complaints concerning fresh seafood. Among the 33 pursuable complaints, four cases were referred to C&ED or FEHD, and 20 were successfully conciliated.
Note: Including the type of product, price or weight etc.
(2) In the past five years, FEHD collected a total of 28 622 samples of seafood products for chemical, microbiological and other types of testing (including 129 samples of fish products for identification tests), with a view to ensuring food safety. FEHD would announce cases with unsatisfactory testing results. The breakdown of identification tests on fish products by calendar year is as follows:
In the same period, the numbers of laboratory tests conducted by C&ED on the accuracy of trade descriptions of uncooked seafood products sold at supermarkets are as follows –
The tests revealed two cases of incorrect information on labels. C&ED initiated prosecution in one of the cases and the trader was convicted; investigation is under way on the other case.
In addition, C&ED conducts risk and intelligence assessment, and performs inspections, test purchases and testing in relation to the sales practices of various traders as and when necessary. As a general rule, C&ED would make public announcements on the details of conviction cases. The announcements serve to remind consumers of matters requiring attention when making purchases, and enunciate C&ED's determination to combat unfair trade practices.
(3) From 2012 to 2016, there were five traders that were convicted more than once for applying false trade descriptions under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.
To prevent repeated offences under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, C&ED would strengthen inspections of relevant traders and conduct test purchases of their products to ensure that the trade descriptions applied are compliant with the law. Under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, a person who deploys unfair trade practices, such as applying false trade descriptions, may upon conviction be sentenced to a maximum of five years of imprisonment and a fine of $500,000. In determining the sentence, the court generally would impose heavier penalties on repeated offenders.
Ends/Wednesday, February 22, 2017