【明報專訊】ONLINE FOOD SHOPPING has become increasingly common. Several months ago, a type of sandwiches produced in Taiwan entered the Hong Kong market by virtue of online shopping. But it led to a food poisoning outbreak afterwards, which afflicted more than eighty people. The incident well demonstrates the health hazard posed by online food shopping. Recently, the Consumer Council and the Ming Pao investigation team have carried out their own sting operations. These investigations have brought to light the supply chain problems of online food shopping, which have much to do with the grey areas of the existing law.
The Consumer Council has recently conducted an investigation of 40-odd online shops that sell fresh foods. Only eleven of them state clearly how the food will be kept at a low temperature during delivery. Some frozen food sold by eight online shops had completely defrosted when it was delivered, so much so that a mixture of blood and water could be seen seeping out of some frozen meat. Some salmon sashimi was kept in containers that were not hermetically sealed, but could be opened easily. All this has exposed the problems concerning the hygiene of food purchased online.
The Ming Pao investigation team has also run stories about salmon sashimi purchased online. In one of the stories, an order was placed on WhatsApp, after which the food was delivered by a food company located in a Kwai Chung industrial building. The company had licences for the importation and distribution of aquatic products - but not for distributing and retailing sashimi. Staffers of that company later explained to our reporters that the sashimi they distributed came from a sashimi shop that had a licence for selling sashimi, though they stopped short of giving us more details. The other story is about a shop located in an industrial building in Kowloon Bay. It does not have a food business licence or a restricted food permit, meaning that it cannot sell sashimi as a retailer. The online shop accepted our order nevertheless, and delivered the food, which had been put into a bag of ice cubes, with a van not equipped with a refrigerator.
The existing Food Business Regulation mainly deals with the locations of food businesses. However, no matter whether it is an online shop with a physical address in an industrial building, or a shop that is actually the home of someone trying to start a business or get a taste of doing so, believing that the food they cook is "special", these online stores, which do not have a fixed address, simply pose a challenge to officers of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD). For it is difficult for these officers to conduct random checks on such "virtual" shops. Theoretically, FEHD officers can do what the Consumer Council and our investigation team have done - they can conduct sting operations to investigate these online shops as well. However, according to those in the sashimi business, the number of online sashimi shops has increased several times in recent years, which has led to intense competition. It is unrealistic to demand that the FEHD devote too many of its human resources to conduct random checks on these shops.
Online shopping is an emerging industry. It offers people with a creative mind a chance to start their own businesses. True, there are no strict regulations concerning online shopping in the existing law. But it is not advisable to resort to legislation without good reason or make amendments to the law that might prevent the industry from thriving. We should look at the issue from two perspectives. First, businesses that operate illegally should not be condoned. Manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers of food should all obtain licences and abide by the pertaining rules and regulations, and online shops should not be an exception. In order to safeguard the health of consumers, it is necessary to ensure that the food they sell is hygienic and safe to eat. Then the government should allow enough space for online shopping and online shops to thrive. This will set free some new business modes and give fresh impetus to Hong Kong's business environment.