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Xinhua Insight: Big data could make China's food safer
2016-07-20    

GUIYANG, July 10 (Xinhua) -- Over fears of adulterated or substandard food, many Chinese rely on word-of-mouth to find safe groceries, but officials and technicians say it is time to take a more scientific approach and use big data to address food safety concerns.

A popular trend currently is ugly vegetables, as many take this as an indication of limited artificial interference.

Guizhou Vice Governor He Li spoke about this, and other trends besides, during a food safety discussion at the Eco Forum Global Annual Conference concluded Sunday in the provincial capital Guiyang, calling it ill-informed and misleading.

"When I was small, peach-shaped cakes were in vogue. We all went mad for the little red decoration on top of the cake," said the 57-year-old.

"The decoration was full of additives, but this was taken as a sign of industrialization and was quite novel. However, more and more Chinese are trying to avoid additives, even though many are harmless and, quite often, necessary for preservation," He said.

Big data could be used to ease the public's concerns, He said.

Guizhou, a pioneer of China's big data economy, allows consumers to access food inspection data with their cell phones.

HANDY ACCESS

Previously, consumers had to search the official web sites of food safety watchdogs. Now, all this information is at their finger tips thanks to the "Shi-An-Ce" (test for safe food) app, which scans bar codes to bring up all the available data on that product.

The data includes inspection reports, and reports by the food safety watchdog. User can also submit an inspection request.

"We hope the software will promote food safety," said Teng Jiacai, deputy director of China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA).

According to him, the CFDA has made public all its inspection reports since 2014, involving millions of products available at shopping malls, supermarkets, convenience stores and small stores.

"Next, we will integrate the inspection data from the food and drug authorities at the local level, and data from agricultural and customs departments and make this available to the public. So, it will also improve the food safety supervising mechanism," he said.

Food safety is a major concern in China, although official data shows the proportion of food products up to standards rose from 79 percent in 1980s to 96.8 percent last year.

The biggest concerns voiced by shoppers is expired food, bad service and pesticide or veterinary drug residue, according to Qiu Baochang, executive vice president of Beijing Consumers Rights and Interests Protection Law Society.

"Ironically, few consumers take producers to court," said Qiu.

The Food Safety Law stipulates that those found guilty by a court of law will be slapped with a fine several times higher than the selling price. Despite this, however, some Chinese continue to sell shoddy products, to their detriment.

In one case, a dealer of fake ginseng went bankrupt after being ordered to pay compensation of 700,000 yuan (around 105,000 U.S. dollars) to a regular customer, according to Qiu.

In the opinion of Teng Jiacai, the public need to be made more aware.

"With data being much more accessible, consumers should vote with their wallets, forcing producers and distributors to obey our laws and regulations," he said.

POTENTIAL RISKS

Apart from the app, Guizhou is also developing a food safety big data platform.

Operated by Guizhou Academy of Testing and Analysis under the provincial government, Food Safety Cloud involves more than 20,000 enterprises and hundreds of testing agencies, and has amassed data on 35,551 products since it was set up in 2014.

The plan is for the app to include data from the farm to the dining table, including storage and transportation, according to Zhang Laiwu, chairman of China Society of Soft Science and former deputy minister of science and technology who is involved in the project.

This, however, has its own risks. "When you have a substantial amount of data, security and reliability become major concerns," he said.

At the forum, dozens of food producers inked an integrity proposal while a national credibility alliance was established by agencies engaged in third-party food safety testing and analysis.

Yue Guojun, COFCO chief engineer, China's leading agri-product supplier, also Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering, read the proposal, which called on food producers to enforce the Food Safety Law and build "a great wall of credibility."

"Food safety is related to public sentiment and changes over time. Therefore, there is always room for improvement," he said.

Chu Xiaogang, executive chairman of the national alliance, said that all members of the alliance must sign an integrity agreement, and those who fabricate or modify data will face dismissal.

Some fear that data generation might increase the expenses born by consumers.

Deng Wei, chairman of the board of directors of the Bright Oceans Corp., (BOCO) dismissed this, citing Wuchang rice, which is grown in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

Using satellite data from the land resources department in Wuchang, BOCO investigated the product and found that the annual output of Wuchang Rice is just over 700,000 tonnes. Wuchang-brand rice, however, had more than 10 million tonnes on sale annually, meaning 90 percent of the product on the market was fake, Deng said.

In a game-changing move in 2014, BOCO began to issue bar codes to be included on Wuchang Rice packaging, so consumers could find out about the product while still at store. Wuchang City government also continued to crackdown on fake Wuchang rice. Within 12 months, a fair pricing system was established, ensuring the interests of both the farmers and consumers.

As data allows producers to track each product, Deng predicts that consumer data will also grow.

"If there is enough end-user data, should the products be defective, producers can recall and compensate much easier," he said.

Teng Jiacai said that the power of big data lies in its potential to incubate new business ideas and provide new solutions, not just for safety control but also modern farming.

(From Xinhua, 2016-07-10)