Hundreds of slimming pills, herbal medicines, skin care products, cosmetics, virility tablets, food supplements and a dizzying array of Chinese and Western potions take pride of place on the shelves of neighbourhood chemists and on the advertising pages of mass-market Chinese publications.
At least some of these concoctions may have come under the scrutiny of the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Services laboratory at SGS Hong Kong, where Tammy Cheng and her team dissect products and analyse ingredients.
Ms Cheng, the deputy technical director of SGS Hong Kong's Healthcare & Pharmaceutical Services, supervises more than 20 people in the laboratory and performs multiple roles. Verifying, testing and certifying healthcare and pharmaceutical products requires her to be thorough in laboratory work and up-to-date in terms of local regulatory changes and scientific developments.
While overseeing laboratory procedures during a normal 10-hour day, she plans laboratory development, conducts seminars on regulatory matters for clients and develops training programmes for her staff and new employees. "I am a chemist and my speciality is on the technical side," Ms Cheng says of her job, in which she has accumulated more than 10 years' experience.
"[You] have to show initiative, be analytical and able to update [yourself] about developments in science and technology"
Her department offers testing services at various stages, from product research and development to registration, production and marketing. Traditional Chinese medicines, proprietary Chinese medicines, healthcare products, skin care products and cosmetics, food/dietary supplements and many others come under her surveillance. "We mainly carry out testing of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine," Ms Cheng says.
Following the enactment of laws aimed at regulating the industry in Hong Kong, traditional Chinese medicine and the quality of products have drawn greater attention from manufacturers, practitioners and consumers. With legislation gazetted in November 2002 and being implemented in phases, these laws mean that the safety, efficacy and quality of all proprietary Chinese medicines must be evaluated before products can be registered and sold. Dispensing, storing and labelling herbal medicines is also regulated under the new laws.
As Ms Cheng's department offers clients (largely manufacturers of Chinese medicines) a one-stop solution, her work is broad in scope and scale. "I also have to do some small-scale consulting work to help clients with regulatory matters, such as compliance issues. If a particular sample fails our tests, we help the client improve the product. We also provide marketing support by undertaking a quality and safety survey on similar products in the market," she says.
"On research, we co-operate with local and mainland Chinese universities in pharmaceutical products stability studies, [analytical] method development, toxicology and clinical studies. In clinical studies, we help our clients with protocol design and act as an auditor to ensure doctors and nurses strictly follow protocol during clinical trials. We also then do the data analysis."
"Qualitative testing involves identifying the ingredients of medicines and the quantitative testing involves testing the purity of the raw material," she adds.
To carry out various tests, advanced electronic tools are at her disposal, alongside a bulky edition of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, a widely-used reference on the quality and standards of medicinal substances and pharmaceutical products, and other essential references.
Ms Cheng joined SGS, a global leader in verification, testing and certification services for a variety of sectors, after graduation, as a laboratory executive in the chemical laboratory. From the chemical laboratory, she moved on to the food laboratory and then to the environment services laboratory.
The basic requirement for this job is a first degree in chemistry and experience in chemical analysis, she says. "Analytical chemistry is the science of measuring the impurities or identifying the substance of a chemical. Organic chemistry is the science of synthesising compounds to develop new pharmaceutical drugs."
She advises those interested in the quality services field to nurture an inquiring mind. "The person has to show initiative, be analytical and able to update themselves about developments in science and technology," she comments. "A first degree is a starting point. We have to upgrade ourselves through further study and by accumulating work experience."
Christopher Ling, director of business development and marketing at SGS Hong Kong, says there are opportunities in mainland China for people in Hong Kong with work experience in and academic knowledge of the quality and testing services industry. "There are laboratories in China which need technicians and technologists,'' he says.
While there is likely to be some difference in pay on the mainland compared with Hong Kong, Mr Ling is not able to say with certainty what this wage gap could be.
He notes that, as the mainland's economy continues to open up, the quality and testing requirements of various industry sectors will become greater, thus creating more opportunities in the quality and testing services field.