May 29, 2012, by Fraser

Chinese pork made safer with an iPhone

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, talks food safety and iPhones…

Taking food safety to another level

Food safety isn’t an issue that suggests compromise but in certain aspects it can be difficult to deliver. In the UK we found this when Mad Cow disease (BSE) was discovered in the beef industry in 1995. My research at that time made a contribution to understanding the costs and benefits of implementing new farm assurance schemes and actions to restore consumer confidence after new technical standards were introduced post-BSE.

Those new standards included ways of ensuring that beef products could be traced back to the abattoir and farmer that produced them. In China last week I was introduced to a traceability system for pork and vegetables using software and hardware that takes food safety to another level.

Traceability systems

My trip to China was part of collaborative research with Sichuan Agricultural University on various aspects of the pig industry in China, including pork traceability systems.  Food security is obviously directly affected by waste, contamination and consumer perceptions of the integrity of the food supply chain and so an efficient method of providing traceability is a necessary condition for food security to occur.

But it’s not an easy thing to accomplish with millions of animals and meat products needing to be monitored in the economy (and you can multiply this many times when you include fish, vegetables, dairy products, etc). Indeed, it seems a huge and expensive  task.

Costly move

In the UK the introduction of a radically improved beef traceability system was very costly but the crisis conditions at that time made it inevitable. In the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, the stimulus to change their system came from reports of adulteration of pork products by the addition of water back in 2008. This led to various new systems being promoted for pork traceability and what I was shown by the software engineers at BoYun in the Chengdu hi tech zone last week is a system that is probably class leading.

The Chengdu system marries radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology (which identifies a carcase or product) with Cloud computing (which collects and analyses the data) and with wifi enabled weigh scales at wholesale, retail and foodservice establishments (which measure, monitor and tag pork products) so that, at any one point or time, the meat derived from 5 million pigs per annum can be traced back through the supply chain.

Where iPhones come in…

The ubiquitous iPhone (or smartphone), with an extra piece of RFID equipment attached to it, can be used to deliver data and to receive and analyse it. From the point at which the first RFID tag is applied by human hand in the abattoir the rest of the work is done without anyone hardly doing anything differently. But when a retail customer buys a pork joint the sticky label attached to it has its weight and price and the RFID-derived information so that the customer can go on-line and see which  farmer produced it: the ultimate in traceability.

It’s concepts like the Chengdu system that will deliver improved efficiencies and benefits in all parts of the food chain in the future. It’s not jujst about one city in China or one supply chain for pork, traceability systems that truly work will be able to deliver sustainable vegetables, meat, fish and food products across global supply chains. And being part of this innovative research into traceability now makes me feel more optimistic about achieving our goals in global food security.

Posted in traceability