16th September 2023 – (Hong Kong) The recent furore over lengthy delays in clearing imported Japanese seafood shipments in Hong Kong has laid bare loopholes in the city’s food safety regime. Insufficient manpower at the Centre for Food Safety (CFS), particularly in light of enhanced radiation testing requirements, left food cargoes languishing and raised the risk of spoiled produce entering the market. This troubling episode highlights how Hong Kong’s overstretched food inspectors are struggling to uphold proper checks amid ever-growing trade volumes.

When Tokyo Electric Power Company announced plans to discharge treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear station, alarm bells sounded in Hong Kong. As a major importer of Japanese seafood, stringent controls were required to screen for any contamination. The CFS announced additional radiation tests alongside a ban on products from the worst-affected regions.

However, the facility only employs around 300 frontline staff to monitor massive inbound food traffic. In 2021 alone, Hong Kong imported 4.6 million tonnes of food from around 200 countries and regions. This enormous scale means inspectors are under constant pressure. Last week’s nuclear discharge simply exacerbated long-standing strains.

According to industry sources, bottlenecks rapidly emerged as expanded radiation checks were implemented. Some Japanese seafood cargoes were left waiting over 15 hours before sampling as just one CFS officer was available to handle bulging workloads. Delays meant produce deteriorated in sweltering temperatures as frustrated drivers waited indefinitely.

This fiasco reveals a food safety regime struggling with inadequate resources. The CFS has brazenly imposed stringent requirements without boosting manpower to match. The ridiculous scenes of inspectors overwhelmed by import volumes they could barely handle had an air of inevitability.

In response, the CFS has cobbled together a face-saving contingency plan, deploying extra staff and advising importers to use airport cold storage while awaiting clearance. However, this quick fix only highlights the lack of planning and fundamental constraints facing food safety management in Hong Kong.

Even outside this recent nuclear discharge debacle, the CFS has continually faced criticism for lax standards and controls. Shoddy testing regimes have allowed problematic imports from questionable sources to slip through. Examples like the Brazil meat scandal in 2017 contribute to the impression the CFS lacks diligence.

Moreover, despite having 300 frontline officers, less than a dozen are tasked with radiation screening – woefully inadequate for the enormous volumes handled daily. Far more personnel are evidently needed to cover the painstaking work of collecting and assessing samples.

The reality is that while import figures swell each year, CFS headcounts remain stagnant, overwhelmed by Sisyphean workloads. Even prior to the Fukushima issue, average clearance times were reported at 3-4 hours under normal circumstances. Fast turnarounds should be the norm for perishable products, rather than seen as impressive.

Serious questions must also be asked about why CFS risk assessment failed to anticipate the additional burden from Japanese radiation checks and request extra capacity. Reactive makeshift measures now underway do not inspire confidence in the CFS’ capability for contingency planning when import regulations change.

Critics may also highlight that the 400% increase in Japanese food shipment inspections since 2013 has not been matched by any increase in staff. While authorities have augmented requirements on paper, the resources to enforce them in practice remain deficient. The inevitable outcome is such public health risks seen last week.

Therefore, before imposing further import restrictions in response to the Fukushima release, the CFS must ensure it has sufficient bandwidth. There is little utility in enhancing testing parameters if swamped officers cannot carry out the work. Long-term recruitment drives matching headcount to regulatory needs are essential.

Technology can also assist by streamlining analysis processes. But manpower shortages must be addressed first, otherwise adding responsibilities via high-tech tools will only compound strains.

Ultimately, this saga deals a blow to public confidence over the ability of Hong Kong’s food safety regime to cope with rising import volumes. Swift action to expand and reinforce the overburdened CFS must now be a priority. Cutting corners on staffing for a system crucial to public health is a false economy, as last week starkly demonstrated.