Unveiling the hidden challenges inside the Consumer Council’s product testing efforts

Gilly Wong

16th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong faced a dire shortage of face masks, leading to long queues and frantic searches as residents sought to protect themselves. Amidst this chaos, a lesser-known narrative was unfolding at the Hong Kong Consumer Council, where even the organisation’s researchers were thrust into queues to secure enough samples for comprehensive testing.

Cheung Yan-fan, the Chief Officer of Research and Survey at the Consumer Council, sheds light on the behind-the-scenes efforts that go largely unnoticed by the public. During the pandemic, securing 30 different mask samples took over two months, an ordeal that illustrates the lengths to which the Council’s staff went to maintain their rigorous testing standards.

“During the mask shortage, our team had to rush to any nearby health food store seen with a queue to purchase masks,” explained Cheung. This approach was necessary because the Consumer Council insists on buying anonymously, to ensure that their test results are unbiased and reflect the real consumer experience.

The Consumer Council is known for its monthly consumer advice, and while its Chief Executive, Gilly Wong Fung-han, is a familiar face on television, the stories of the researchers remain largely untold. These employees are tasked with producing approximately five investigative reports each year, each timed meticulously with predetermined publication dates. Once laboratory data is collected, a frantic race against time begins to contact suppliers, analyse data, and draft reports—all within a tight timeframe to ensure timely publication.

Cheung, who transitioned to the Consumer Council after years of conducting chemical tests in laboratories, highlights the challenges faced by the research team. “The complexity of condensing vast amounts of data into a detailed report is considerable. We recruit industry experts to ensure our reports are accurate. A university degree is just the starting point; relevant experience is crucial,” she states.

During the early days of February 2020, as the pandemic hit, the sight of residents camping overnight just to secure a number for buying masks became a common one. The Council’s mask testing results, published in December 2020, came almost a year after the initial outbreak, a testament to the prolonged impact of the pandemic on their operations.

The Consumer Council’s commitment to impartial testing means refusing samples from manufacturers and instead purchasing anonymously as regular consumers. This practice was particularly challenging during the early days of the pandemic when mask supplies were erratic, and unknown brands frequently replaced each other on shelves. It wasn’t until local production stabilised that the Council could commence its testing.