Vietnamese authorities have identified eight forged health certificates related to one meat processing plant.

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) in Hong Kong found discrepancies in serial numbers of health certificates issued by Vietnamese authorities when processing data during modifications to the import food information system.

Suspected forged health certificates were used by a Vietnam meat processing plant for application of an import license of frozen pork to Hong Kong.

Health certificates are issued by an authority at the place of origin for a consignment of food, showing it has been inspected and is safe for consumption. In Hong Kong, the document is a legal requirement for import of high risk food such as game, meat, poultry and eggs.

Involved importers and Vietnamese firm
A CFS spokesman said it was informed by Vietnamese authorities that after reviewing all health certificates submitted to CFS in 2019, there were eight forged ones.

“All forged health certificates were related to one meat processing plant in Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities have suspended issuance of a health certificate to this plant. The investigation of CFS revealed that from May to October (2019), there were eight consignments of frozen pork weighing 176 tons exported by the concerned meat plant, using high-quality forged health certificates, to three local importers.”

CFS staff issued import licenses to the eight consignments of frozen pork before finding the problem.

“All the eight consignments of frozen pork were distributed to other food premises, such as food factories, and tracing work is ongoing. The concerned frozen pork was medium pigs and generally supplied to food factories for preparation of roasted meats,” said the spokesman.

CFS told the three importers, Wealth Fortune Trading Ltd., Golden Rainbow Trading Ltd. and Keung Kee Food Trading Co. Ltd., to stop sale and recall concerned products.

The agency has suspended import of frozen pork from the Vietnamese meat processing plant called Haiphong Trading Goods Export Joint Stock Co. It is the first time suspected forged health certificates have been discovered in Hong Kong involving this processing plant. Vietnamese authorities have inspected the implicated processing plant to ensure the environment is clean and processed meat is fit for human consumption.

CFS has collected more than 10,700 samples of pork, beef, poultry meat and such products from 2018 through November 2019 for chemical and biological testing including residual veterinary drugs, preservatives and pathogens, with a satisfactory rate of 99.8 percent. The 25 unsatisfactory samples did not involve frozen meat from Vietnam.

Paper or electronic?
CFS has enhanced inspection of all health certificates for imported frozen meat issued by Vietnam and will verify with Vietnamese authorities every certificate before issuing an import license. Hong Kong and Vietnam only have a meat import arrangement for frozen pork.

The agency has enhanced testing of related products imported from Vietnam and staff will take samples of frozen pork from Vietnam.

Paper health certificates have been effective for countries in ensuring the safety of imported food but the incident is a reminder there are potential loopholes, according to Lai Chi Tse and Edmond Ng, from CFS.

Food safety authorities in other countries advocate using electronic health certification. Requirements are the same as those for the paper version with information including a unique identification number. Electronic health certificates allow instant online verification by third parties and are difficult to forge, officials say.

CFS has established e-health certificate systems with New Zealand and Australia since 2011 and the Netherlands since 2017. The agency has also launched the Food Trader Portal (FTP), an IT system.

Key online functions include trader registration, food import applications and enquiry on such related information. Food traders will be able to use the free online services instead of having to send staff to submit application forms in person at the CFS, with the agency shortening processing time for certain types of import license application from one working day to four hours.

The FTP will preliminarily check the application information and alert the importer if an abnormality is detected such as when a health certificate number duplicated with a preceding application has been input.

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