August 12, 2005
A high number of food-poisoning cases in recent months has forced the government to threaten the restaurants involved with closure if there continue to be similar complaints.
There were 495 cases of food poisoning in the first six months of this year affecting 1,873 people, the highest six-month figure for the past five years, the Department of Health said Thursday.
The previous high was in 2001, when there were 344 cases affecting 1,548 people.
A Causeway Bay restaurant was the latest source of food poisoning, with 10 people coming down with diarrhea, abdominal pains, nausea and vomiting after eating at a buffet at the Golden Elephant Thai Restaurant in Times Square earlier this month.
All 10 were discharged after receiving outpatient treatment, according to the Centre for Health Protection Thursday.
Early investigations suggested that the outbreak was likely caused by bacteria. The restaurant is being prosecuted for the incident, said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
The department fears there could be many more cases with summer being the high season for food-poisoning outbreaks.
About two-thirds of recent food-poisoning cases were caused by bacteria. Other causes include viruses, biotoxins and chemicals.
There were two mass cases of food poisoning last month involving 42 people who fell sick after eating at the Chon Wo Korean Restaurant in Tsuen Wan and the Mi-Ne Sushi in Causeway Bay, according to the government.
Eleven people had diarrhea and abdominal pains after eating at the Itamae Sushi in Tsim Sha Tsui this month. Four of the cases were confirmed to be bacillary dysentery.
This is an intestinal infection caused by shigella bacteria. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea with abdominal cramps and nausea or vomiting.
Stools may contain blood and mucus, according to the Centre for Health Protection. The incubation period is between one and three days.
A spokeswoman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said that, under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene may issue warnings to dirty food premises or order them to shut down indefinitely until they have cleaned up their act.
“If the food or [hygiene conditions] pose an immediate threat to public health, the director may order a temporary closure,” she said.
“[In the latest case] since the shigella bacteria is highly infectious, the restaurant was ordered to close for business.” She said not all restaurants found to have committed offenses under the public health ordinance are ordered to close.
Those that do not pose immediate health risks may receive a warning instead, or may be allowed to operate while prosecutions are ongoing.
One of the most high-profile temporary closures was of the Shanghai Mian in Langham Place, Mong Kok, in November after a total of 186 people were reportedly taken ill after eating at the shop, which was operating on a temporary license.
Another high-profile temporary closure involved one of the restaurants in the Regal Riverside Hotel in Sha Tin, where 39 people fell ill after a buffet in July.
Department figures showed that, as of May, there were 7,627 general restaurant licenses and 2,773 light-refreshment premise licenses, which means there are more than 10,000 large and small food premises.
Permanent Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Carrie Yau said Thursday the hot weather and a taste for raw food is behind the leap in the number of food-poisoning cases.
“We will step up inspections since more people, young and old, now like to eat sushi or sashimi,” she said.
“In the past, we gave warnings to unsanitary premises, but now we are considering closing them down if they are involved in too many cases of food poisoning.”
The founding president of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, David Ng, said Hong Kong’s food-safety inspections are among the most stringent in the world.
“But administrative decisions to tighten inspection is usually retrospective, failing to treat the root problem,” he said.
“Restaurants that fail to compete face natural elimination. So tightening the grip is not the best thing the Hong Kong government should do.”
He said the eating culture in Hong Kong had changed over the years, with many more people now willing to try new dishes, despite the higher risks involved.
“Before, cold dishes and raw food were not popular, but now there are more restaurants selling cold dishes. More buffets also feature cold dishes and raw food, such as sashimi and oysters,” said Ng.
Buffets featuring raw oysters in top-class hotels used to charge more than HK$200 a person. Now similar buffets cost just over HK$100.
Ng said that, to compete some restaurants buy half-shelled oysters that, when mixed with other cooked food, could result in cross-contamination.
“That is something the industry cannot control,” he said.
Another reason for the rising number of food-poisoning cases is that more restaurants have opened since 2003, when the industry was hard hit by the SARS outbreak.
Ng estimated there could be up to 12,000 food premises in operation, compared with around 9,000 two years ago.
Regarding the popular sushi restaurants, where diners can pick their favorite dishes from revolving belts at the sushi bar, Ng said the more glossy and soft the raw fish appears, the more likely it has been exposed at room temperatures for a long time.
He said sushi and sashimi should be refrigerated and served chilled.