Hong Kong supermarkets have halted some vegetable sales amid a new food scare after pressure group Greenpeace accused grocery chains of selling produce tainted with dangerous levels of pesticides.
Dozens of Wellcome supermarkets throughout the territory cleared their shelves of contaminated tomatoes, greens and beans on Tuesday as government health chiefs took up the issue with retailers and farm suppliers.
The move followed a Greenpeace report that said vegetables at branches of Wellcome and its rival supermarket giant ParknShop had been found to contain high levels of dangerous and, in some cases, banned pesticides, among them DDT.
"These are pesticides and chemicals that cannot be simply washed off the food," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Apple Chow.
"These are contaminants that are absorbed into the tissue of the vegetable and ingested when the food is eaten."
Greenpeace said it had tested 55 samples of vegetables bought in various store branches between November and March. All samples had been produced locally or in mainland China, it said.
The levels of dangerous chemicals were found to be between 1.2 and 12 times greater than recommended by the World Health Organisation, it said.
Among the pesticides discovered were the banned compounds methamidophos, a highly toxic compound that can affect the nervous system and cause breathing to stop; lindane, which attacks the liver, kidneys and immune system; and Delta-HCH, which causes blood disorders.
Other legal but no less dangerous chemicals found on food were chlorpyrifos and cypermethrin, which attack the nerves.
Greenpeace said it had tested tomatoes, French beans and a range of Chinese greens including pak choi.
The group urged the two chains to impose stricter testing on produce.
Fearing another image-denting food scare following a string of health crises in the past couple of years, the food and environmental hygiene department stepped in.
"We have contacted the supermarkets, Greenpeace and the mainland authorities to get more information on the testing procedures and the suppliers," said assistant director in charge of food surveillance and control, Thomas Chung.
Chung said the department was monitoring hospitals for food poisoning cases but so far they had not been notified of any reports of associated illnesses.
A spokeswoman for Wellcome said the company was "concerned" by the report and had halted sales of the contaminated food and switched to alternative suppliers.
"Wellcome has already traced the source of the vegetable batches and has immediately terminated the concerned supply," it said.
"Wellcome has also issued warning letters to all vegetable suppliers reconfirming and reminding them of the importance of stringent adherence to the current Hong Kong standard, and sourcing only from approved farms and supply sources."
ParknShop quality control expert Peter Johnston told reporters the company was looking into the matter but said there was always a possibility that some food would receive more pesticide than others.
"The way a farmer applies pesticides varies to a reasonable degree of accuracy," Johnston said, adding that the contamination of samples from ParknShop were at the lower end of the scale cited by Greenpeace.
Wellcome and ParknShop act as a virtual duopoly in Hong Kong, commanding some 70 percent of the local grocery market.
The crisis is the latest in a line of food scares to hit the city. Imports of many species of farmed fish and eels from mainland China were banned last year after cancer-causing industrial dyes were found in some samples.
There have been other recent scares over pork from China as well as poultry imports amid growing worldwide bird flu outbreaks.
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