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Hong Kong online food vendors shun laws

Many Hong Kong online food vendors are still not complying with laws designed to ensure food safety, according to the Consumer Council.
“The risks from buying fresh foods online cannot be underestimated and therefore the Government introduced a new regulation earlier this year stipulating that online shops intend to sell any of the restricted foods must obtain a relevant permit and must also provide permit information on their websites such as the permit number, business address and the restricted foods permitted for sale,” said the council in a statement.  
The council surveyed 36 licensed online shops and found the operators had inconsistent ways of displaying that permit information – seven of the websites did not display it at all.
“In some other cases, permit information was displayed at inconspicuous places on their websites, or incorrect or incomplete permit information were displayed, making it difficult for consumers to determine whether the online shops were licensed to sell the restricted foods they were offering,” said the council.
“Food safety directly affects public health and therefore it is a matter to be vigorously safeguarded.  The council calls for early improvement by the online food industry to strictly comply with the regulation.  The authority should also step up enforcement of online shops selling fresh foods, review whether permit information has been displayed according to licence requirement, and institute prosecution of unlicensed online shops.”
The findings of the study were passed on to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) which says it will take follow-up action against non-compliant websites.
In the survey, excluding the four websites which had not started to operate or had closed, 10 websites disclosed permit information on the homepage of their website, and only five of them provided detailed permit information including permit numbers, registered business addresses and the categories of restricted foods the shops were permitted to sell.
Another five websites did not directly disclose permit information on the homepage of the websites, but displayed a designated icon such as “Licences and Permits”, “Awards and Permits.” Consumers were given detailed permit information if they clicked on those icons.  “Moreover, six websites disclosed permit information on the page where the relevant food was sold.  The remaining 4 websites, however, disclosed permit information at relatively inconspicuous places, such as “About us”, “Promotions and Discounts” or “Terms and Conditions”.  
“Consumers may find it difficult to view or search for such information,” concluded the council.
The websites were also contacted about the disclosure of permit information.  Of the seven which did not provide permit information, only one responded.  
“However subsequent improvements were observed by the council from some of these websites.  That includes some websites which previously had failed to disclose permit information now have put all the information in place.  One website has placed the permit information at a more prominent place on the homepage.”
Apart from issues concerning display of permits, the survey also discovered that some websites were selling some restricted foods without appropriate permits.  Under the Food Business Regulation, 21 types of restricted foods are covered by the regulation, including sushi, sashimi, frozen meat and frozen confections.  If online shops intend to sell these types of foods, they are required to apply for the appropriate permit covering each type of food.
Of the permits obtained by the 36 websites surveyed by the council, it was found that there were websites selling various types of restricted foods, without acquiring all relevant permits to cover the foods they were selling.  For instance, a website selling frozen or chilled meat and poultry simultaneously must apply for two separate permits.  But some websites had applied only for one.  Some websites selling frozen confections did not have relevant permits.
“The authority introduced new measures for regulation of operators and selling fresh foods online so that consumers could enjoy safe food.  Only with the concerted efforts of the Government, the industry and consumers, can food safety be enhanced.”
The council has the following recommendations for each concerned group:
Online shops selling restricted foods: Disclose clearly their permit information prominently on websites for easy verification by consumers; Apply for separate permits for selling different types of restricted food.
FEHD: Provide clearer definition for each type of restricted food for sale to reduce misunderstanding and disputes and make it easier for the industry to comply with requirements; Enhance checking of online shops selling restricted food, take action against non-compliant and unlicensed operators.
Consumers: Purchase restricted food only from online shops who obtained relevant licences/permits; Report suspicious online shops to FEHD immediately.

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