February 11, 2013, by Fraser

A Chinese lesson in how to avoid horse trading

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, says we should look to China for a better way of tracing our food — and to avoid a repeat of the ‘horsemeat scandal’

The horsemeat scandal in the UK food industry chain isn’t the first example of contamination in the UK’s beef supply chain.  The BSE/mad cow scare in the mid-1990s began a train of actions that resulted in “traceability” systems being introduced for the UK and European beef industry. At the time this was world class and the UK farm and food industry showed real innovation in creating the Red Tractor scheme  – albeit farmers and processors have often complained about the costs of applying the new “assurance systems”. But the latest scare demonstrates a big weakness of the current traceability system for meat – the reliance on form filling and regular audits.

Clearly, checking meat and food products in the UK (and the rest of the world) will always be necessary and the application of monitoring and testing procedures is part of this. Traceability through the chain  is part of this but as such systems have become more comprehensive  the record keeping and auditing procedures have become more costly and time consuming – and they are heavily dependent on form filling and labelling by humans. Worse, as the present scandal seems to show, they are open to criminal manipulation.

Before we despair about the next hike in costs that more audits or form filling imply it’s worth recalling an earlier blog that demonstrated how this sort of fraud can be prevented – and that can reduce costs. That blog illustrated how Chinese researchers in Chengdu, Sichuan have designed and implemented a traceability system for pork and for vegetable products that guarantees an electronic, paper-free trail from the farmers’ fields to the consumers’ tables. In other words, a system exists (and is being rolled out to other cities in China) that would have prevented the horsemeat scandal that is now being played out on our TV screens.

The traceability system in Chengdu does not rely on form filling – it uses the three technologies of RFID (radio frequency identification), wi-fi, and Cloud systems of data collection and analysis. Simply put, the Chengdu system records each stage in a product’s journey through the food chain electronically. Audits can occur at virtually zero cost (even by smartphone) and any fraud would require tampering  with electronic records (not impossible but rather more difficult than re-labelling boxes of horsemeat and creating a false delivery note).

What does this example of innovation in China teach us about the way we deal with food traceability systems in the UK?  Well, firstly it shows that it’s possible to have traceability without big increases in costs and, secondly, that these new “electronic” systems will be less open to criminal manipulation than current ones. The costs of the current horsemeat scandal and the associated product recalls are significant and may yet run into millions.

The damage to brand reputations will be even greater.  As an academic who has researched the costs of food scares and who ran a meat and fine foods company for four year I can testify to the size of the “hassle factor” in the current meat traceability system and it would appear that at least one part of the criminal fraternity has demonstrated its weaknesses. The time has come to learn a lesson from the Chinese on how to avoid more horse trading in the UK.

Posted in traceability