The number of people sick and the number of outbreaks increased this past year in Hong Kong, according to the country’s Centre for Food Safety.

In 2022, the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) received 117 food poisoning outbreak referrals from the Department of Health, affecting 500 people. The number of outbreaks and patients went up from 2021 but figures are still below pre-Coronavirus pandemic levels.

Outbreaks linked to local food premises and businesses were reported to the CFS of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).

Figures have remained on the low side in the past two years. This may be due to COVID-19 pandemic measures including shortened business hours and fewer meal gatherings, said experts.

Bacterial pathogens caused two-thirds of outbreaks in 2022. Salmonella topped the list and was behind more than half of incidents, followed by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which was responsible for about a third. Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus also caused a few outbreaks.

Viruses accounted for almost a quarter of outbreaks with more than 95 percent due to Norovirus. Outbreaks caused by agents such as histamine and ciguatera toxin increased in 2022.

Contributing factors to outbreaks included improper holding temperature, contamination by utensils and contamination by raw food.

“With the relaxation of anti-pandemic measures and more customers returning to on-premises dining, food businesses may face labor shortages that may pose food safety concerns. Food businesses should remain vigilant and provide adequate food safety training to all food handlers, including permanent, temporary, or part-time staff,” said the CFS.

Insight into outbreaks
In November 2022, the CFS received four outbreak alerts linked to lava cake at a food premise, involving 10 people. Investigations at the site revealed that although pasteurized egg solution was used to produce the lava cake, contamination could occur as the same egg beater was used to process both unpasteurized eggs and pasteurized egg solution without cleaning. Egg batter was also stored with raw meat in the same refrigerator.

Officials found inadequate cooking of lava cake with core temperatures below 55 degrees C (131 degrees F), which was under the CFS’s recommended temperature of 75 degrees C (167 degrees F). 

FEHD told the firm to stop selling associated food, conduct thorough cleaning and disinfection of the premises, and dispose of the remaining food. Laboratory analysis detected the same type of Salmonella Enteriditis in a food sample and stool samples from patients.

Officials said the case illustrates the importance of food handlers following Good Hygiene Practices (GHPs) to avoid cross-contamination of foods from other sources.

There was also an increase in scombroid fish poisoning outbreaks from two in 2021 to five in 2022. Tuna was involved in all incidents in 2022, which affected eight people. 

Investigations took place at five food premises and along the supply chain. Four cases involved prolonged storage of tuna at temperatures above 4 degrees C (39.2 degrees F) at the food outlet, while one case showed evidence of improper storage before import to Hong Kong, resulting in histamine formation. 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is hosting the next Codex Committee on Food Additives meeting.

CFS is planning to organize a half-day seminar on March 31, after the food additives session, on enhancing international partnerships in food safety.

Speakers include Christine Wong, from the Centre for Food Safety; Tom Heilandt, who will talk about the 60th anniversary of Codex, Markus Lipp and Sarah Cahill.

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