The Apprentice - Toys
Don't leave home without it

Zero doesn't mean none

I'm still not quite sure what to make about the curious controversy about changes to the food labelling laws in Hong Kong.

Anyone who has been into a Hong Kong supermarket in recent weeks will have noticed the campaign against the new law, on the basis that some food items would be banned from Hong Kong, mainly because they make claims (such as 'zero trans fat' or 'low sodium') that do not conform with Hong Kong standards. 

Last week a government amendment (to exempt products that sell in small volumes) was defeated in Legco (actually the vote was 26-25 in favour, but somehow that isn't good enough).  These products will now have to carry nutrition labels specifying "energy, trans fat plus six core nutrients, namely (i) protein, (ii) carbohydrates, (iii) fat, (iv) saturated fat, (v) sodium and (vi) sugars on their food labels, as well as any nutrient for which a claim is made".  Which really shouldn't be a problem, because the US and Canada already require the same information, and although there is currently no legal requirement in the UK to list trans fats, most manufacturers do provide this information (and most products are now free of trans fats).

I suspect that a lot of the campaigning on this has either been based on a misunderstanding of the new rules.  For example, the SCMP (subscription required) quoted the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Richard Vuylsteke as saying

"We offer information about the nutrient's percentage by serving size, but Hong Kong requires the percentage by overall size. It is difficult and costly for the US food industry to meet Hong Kong requirements."

That's simply not true, as you can see if you read the original proposals or the new legislation.

Also, I can't find any reference to Omega-3 in the regulations, so it would seem that it is not illegal to claim that a product is "high in Omega-3", although this appears in another SCMP report (subscription still required) based on a claim by 'big retailers'.  Maybe they mean that they would have to tell us how much Omega-3 it contains, but I don't think the claim itself would be illegal.

However, in some cases there are clear differences between Hong Kong rules and what applies in other countries.

For example, US rules allow a product  labelled as having "Zero Trans Fat" to be sold legally in the USA even though it actually has around 2g of Trans Fat per 100g (that's because the current FDA ruling is that it has to contain less than 0.5g per serving, but of course there is no standard definition of a serving, and it can be as little as 25g).  This would not be allowed under Hong Kong's new rules, which stipulate that if a product claims to be 'Trans Fat free' it must contains less than 0.3g trans fats per 100g.  And quite right, too, if you ask me. 

The same may also apply to products that claim to be low in sugar - the Hong Kong standard is 5%, but I can't find any rules in the US that regulate this. 

However, surely it must be possible to use a sticker to obscure the claims that are not allowed?  Given that imported products already have locally added labels of one sort of another, this doesn't sound like too much of a problem.

In spite of this, the big retailers and the various chambers of commerce put a lot of pressure on the government to allow exemptions for products that only sell in small volumes.  If you've been to Park'n'Shop recently you can't fail to have noticed little shelf labels scattered randomly around, announcing that "this may product may disappear from 29 May 2008".  This is highly misleading, because the government has always said that there will be a 2 year grace period, and I doubt that they have checked whether the individual products would fall foul of the new rules.  Also, how many products stocked by Park'n'Shop would qualify as selling in small volumes?   

So, given that these new rules don't take effect for 2 years, and that they are based on international standards, I strongly suspect that the big retailers have been creating a fuss about nothing. 

Anyway, the government gave in to this pressure, and introduced an amendment to the rules.  The legislators in the two pro-government parties (the Idiotic Party and Democratic Alliance for doing what Beijing wants) were therefore expected to vote for it, and (of course) the pro-democrats would vote against the government.  That should have ensured that it was passed, but something went wrong somewhere.

Now we have to wait and see whether any products really will disappear from Hong Kong.  I suspect that it will not have much impact.


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