Food traceability systems little more than gimmicks, say producers and consumers
Retailers and producers say that after a decade, the mainland's food traceability programmes are too costly and fail to protect consumers
While the Chinese are fastidious about their food - and the fresher the better - the origins of their produce is not always clear-cut.
In light of the recent expired- meat scandal involving the Shanghai subsidiary of a US meat processor, not even the world's largest restaurant chains and supermarkets operating on the mainland appear able to guarantee the stringent food safety standards they enjoy in their home markets.
With food safety joining pollution and land seizures as the greatest sources of public discontent, the central government launched pilot programmes a decade ago to trace food from its source of production all the way to the consumer. But even today, their effectiveness is patchy - at fresh produce sections in major suburban supermarkets, staff often give vague answers when pressed for information about suppliers.
Food traceability systems track fresh produce or manufactured food at any time and place on its journey to the consumer. They are commonplace in Western countries and have been a buzzword among mainland government officials in recent years as the country struggles to redeem its tarnished image from a seemingly endless run of food scandals.
Like many countries, China has its own food safety laws, but producers - especially exporters - can apply for international accreditation from such institutions as the International Organisation for Standardisation.
The Ministry of Commerce issued technical standards for the traceability of meat and vegetables in 2011. So far there is no standard for other foods .
All commodities sold in China, including all packaged food, require regular barcodes whether the food is traceable or not. Traceable food also includes a tracking number that can be used to search for product information online. Some high-end products include QR codes that can be scanned with mobile phones. But the type of information they provide varies greatly. Some producers and consumers say the traceability systems are gimmicks. "Compared to the entire trade volume, the percentage of traceable fresh produce in China is nearly zero," said Geng Yijun, a fresh produce retailer.
Industry insiders agreed that instead of providing detailed information about production, processing and packaging, traceability on the mainland often involved little more than putting more labels on food, perhaps listing the website of a farm.
During a recent visit to a Wumart supermarket in Beijing's Tongzhou district, only one meat product under the Xiang-cun brand claimed it was traceable via a QR code.
The same was true with the only vegetables that had QR codes on their packaging. When asked about the traceability numbers on the products, shop staff in the fresh produce section didn't even know what they were.
The increasing amount of organic products require government certification and are supposed to be traceable. But those inspected at a Wal-Mart store in Beijing's central business district only confirmed the name and volume of the product and the name of the producer.
A box of organic eggs produced by Beijing DQY Agriculture, four times more expensive than their regular counterparts, had ID numbers on each egg. But a search online provided no other information except their date of production.
Kerchin brand beef from Inner Mongolia provided a serial number that revealed a long list of details online, including what the cow ate, who transported it to slaughter and the results of drug residue tests. It sold for double the price of regular beef.
Geng, who co-founded Kangpinhui, a chain of fresh produce stores in Shanghai, said that in the case of organic certification, which by regulation is combined with a traceability system, farms pick their own samples for government tests conducted during the application procedure.
"Such unprofessional practices have made certification untrustworthy," Geng said. "It seems departments of commerce, quality inspection, health and agriculture all are responsible for this, but in fact none of them take overall responsibility."
Tao Zhengrong , an organic farmer in Shanghai, said it cost between 15,000 and 30,000 yuan (HK$19,000 to HK$38,000) to apply for organic certification and set up traceability for each type of produce. "It means a big increase in costs if a farm produces a variety of products, so few farmers have tried it," he said.