City Weekend

A meal at your door in minutes, but can Hong Kong operators deliver on food safety?

Consumers are spoiled for choice, but poor food handling raise the serious risks of contamination and spoilage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 12:00pm

With the help of online food delivery companies, Hongkongers can now satisfy almost every culinary craving without having to leave their doorstep.

But while recognising how such services are broadening consumer choices, the consumer watchdog is reminding users to first read the operators’ terms and conditions before placing orders.

“Consumers should take note that service providers may not be responsible for the quality of food,” a Consumer Council spokesman told the Post. “In case of poor food quality or damaged products, it may be difficult for consumers to recover their losses.”

Food delivery apps ‘threaten Hong Kong’s food culture and peoples’ health’

Online food delivery companies stress that multiple measures are in place to ensure quality, with food safety being their absolute priority.

The food delivery scene has quickly boomed into a HK$2 billion market since companies such as foodpanda and Deliveroo decided to tap into the tech-savvy culinary paradise known for having one of the highest per capita concentrations of cafes and restaurants in the world.

From offering ice popsicles to oyster platters and local hot pot, restaurants offering various cuisines and prices are happy to ride along as the number of users continues to grow.

The latest market entrant, UberEats, boasts a partnership with more than 1,000 restaurants – in just three months since its launch last October.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the new delivery trend had helped restaurants to reach out to consumers.

“But we are very concerned about food safety,” said Wong, whose eatery is also a partnering restaurant. “Food handling has to be done properly.”

In the city’s first Food Hygiene Code published 10 years ago, the Food and Environmental Health Department called for caution in food transportation as the process presented a significant opportunity for contamination and spoilage.

Foodpanda vs Deliveroo vs UberEats: Hong Kong food delivery services put to the test

A department spokeswoman said private service contractors had to ensure their deliveries met food hygiene and safety requirements, just like the licensing conditions imposed on restaurants, or face prosecution under the Food Business Regulation.

Selling food that is unfit for human consumption is also punishable by a HK$50,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance.

Dr Leung Ka-sing, associate director at Polytechnic University’s Food Safety and Technology Research Centre, said the risks arising from deliveries were generally low but improper handling could cause stomach aches or diarrhoea.

“Short deliveries mean a relatively lower risk,” he explained. “Another factor is whether the food is kept at an appropriate and stable temperature when they leave the kitchen.”

Naturally, delivery time is a key frontier of competition among the companies.

London-based Deliveroo said its riders took approximately eight to 10 minutes to deliver from kitchen to consumer to ensure the prepared and packaged food arrived in its ideal form and temperature. UberEats boasts an average delivery time of nine to 10 minutes.

To achieve such times, most companies engage trained couriers to deliver by motorbikes, walkers and even runners – in populated areas where traffic or parking could be a problem. Deliveroo said it would work with the government this year to explore the use of bicycles, while Rocket Internet-backed foodpanda has floated the idea of using drones.

The Germany-based start-up said restaurants must ensure packaging was sealed before being bagged and placed in insulated transport boxes.

Horace Lam, general manager of UberEats Hong Kong, said they sometimes ran trials to test packaging arrangements within a controlled delivery area for easily spoiled food like fruit popsicles from the popular local chain I See I See.

“I’ve tried delivering myself before we engaged in official partnerships,” Lam said.

These companies also emphasise communication with restaurants and feedback from users to monitor deliveries and evaluate partners.

Brian Lo, general manager of Deliveroo Hong Kong, said: “We are constantly innovating to perfect every point of the delivery experience.”