Officials in Hong Kong are investigating illnesses linked to a school lunch box supplier.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has received information about two suspected food poisoning outbreaks from the Centre for Health Protection, involving four students who had meals provided by this supplier on Feb. 13 and 16.

FEHD officers met with officials from the meal box supplier, Luncheon Star, to discuss the incident. It was not mentioned where foods are in the lunch boxes.

Luncheon Star suspended the supply of lunch boxes on Feb. 20 and 21, to inspect production processes, and conduct deep cleaning and disinfection of the factory.

Lab results of lunch box contents from Luncheon Star have returned satisfactory results and tests of 11 food samples and 25 environmental swab samples collected by FEHD from food factories during investigations were also compliant. The supply of lunch boxes to schools was restarted on Feb. 22.

A sudden increase in demand
Luncheon Star, part of the Café de Coral group, said due to COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures, many employees had left the company in recent years, resulting in a shortage of staff.

“The government’s recent announcement of the full resumption of classes meant Luncheon Star needed to produce more than 100,000 lunch boxes per day – a sudden jump of three to four times compared to pre-resumption production levels. We have successfully recruited enough staff to meet current production needs, and strengthened supervision and employee training to enhance food safety awareness amongst all food handlers.”

Luncheon Star said it was a top priority to identify the root cause of the problem as soon as possible and to take appropriate steps to prevent similar incidents.

“We are currently looking for the root cause of the problem from different angles, including raw ingredient specifications, processing procedures, the performance of cooking equipment, as well as transportation, timing, and logistics. In order to strengthen monitoring and food safety, sample lunch boxes from our production line will be sent to the lab for daily testing.”

With schools gradually resuming full-time face-to-face classes and arranging meals for students on campus, the FEHD has stepped up inspections since mid-February at factories licensed to supply school lunch boxes, and reminded operators of the proper way of handling such products.

Food incidents summary
Meanwhile, the number of food incidents detected in a system used to monitor issues outside Hong Kong increased in 2022.

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) uses the Food Incident Surveillance System (FISS) to record events and examine the potential domestic impact to protect local public health. More than 2,200 incidents were identified in 2021 and around 2,500 in the past year.

In response to the issues, CFS assessed the risk and investigated the local availability of the products in question by reviewing relevant import records, liaising with authorities, and conducting sales checks with local traders.

Depending on the risk assessment and scale of local impact, the agency developed various risk management actions, including stopping the sale of implicated items, product recalls, enhanced surveillance, or import suspension.

Information published by CFS covered chemical hazards such as pesticide residues and food additives, toxins, or undeclared allergens; microbiological hazards like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli; physical hazards including glass, plastic, or metal contamination and other issues such as incorrect date labeling. The majority of food incidents are related to microbiological and chemical hazards.

One incident monitored was the recall and Salmonella outbreak caused by Ferrero Kinder chocolate. The CFS identified the import and sale of affected products in Hong Kong. It told importers to recall these products and increased surveillance on the chocolate of this brand. There were no reports of local cases of Salmonella associated with the consumption of the affected items.

Another issue was ethylene oxide in ice cream products that had been distributed to Hong Kong in June. The CFS urged the importer to initiate a recall, advised the public not to consume the products, and instructed traders not to sell the implicated items.

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