China direct

TV sting prompts official investigation into leading food delivery app

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

TV sting prompts official investigation into leading food delivery app

Related tags Food Baby food Food safety

China’s most popular food delivery app has found itself at the centre of a television exposé amid claims that its service breaches food safety laws and faces fines pending an investigation.

According to an investigative broadcast on state channel CCTV, the company behind Ele.me has been allowing unqualified workers to deliver potentially unsanitary food to customers, prompting food regulators to probe its practices.

The CCTV sting was assisted by an ele.me market specialist in Hebei Province who posed as an unlicensed food vendor on the platform. It was followed by regional regulators raiding some of the unlicensed businesses listed on the app.

The owners of the app, which represents roughly 500,000 food operators across over 300 Chinese cities, issued an apology and promised to take action, which will include the introduction of stricter food safety checks, and removing any offending restaurants from its platform.

"It is with a heavy heart that I find that the company we are so proud of has triggered such food safety concerns​," Ele.me's chief executive, Zhang Xuhao, said in a statement ahead of launching a corporate investigation. 

Guo Guangdong, vice-president, later added: ”We sincerely accept supervision from the media and the public, and apologise to consumers for what is reported by CCTV. We will have a stricter rule to provide consumers a safe and ensured experience​.”

Ele.me, which is backed by internet giants Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com, operates in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Last year, online food delivery transactions in China were worth over 45bn yuan (US$7bn), according to Analysys International, representing a threefold increase over 2014 sales.

The app under investigation is the country’s most popular, with one-third of the market, followed by Meituan Takeout and Baidu Takeout. It is said to have delivered food to more than 40m customers last year.

Shanghai Municipal Food and Drug Administration, which will head the investigation into Ele.me, said last week that it previously probed the company in November, when it issued a fine of 120,000 yuan (US$18,500) for allowing unqualified food vendors to operate through the app.

Food safety laws implemented last October require online delivery platforms to register vendors under their real names and review their qualifications. These new regulations were seen to have signalled increased scrutiny on online food ordering.

More stories from China…

China sees baby food sales double in five years

Baby food sales in China almost doubled between 2010-15, with the country now estimated to consume around US$19bn worth of infant formula.

Baby food

According to Research & Markets, an analyst, the US$50bn global infant nutrition market will become the world’s fastest growing packaged food segment from 2015-20 as it continues to increase at a rate of 7% each year.

While Europe and North America together accounted for 87% of baby food and 66% of infant formula sales in 2014, growth there has remained static. Instead, burgeoning middle-classes in the emerging markets of Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East and Africa are expected to continue driving growth in the segment.

In China, almost 30% of the baby formula consumed is ordered online due to consumers’ doubts over the quality of domestic dairy produce, the report said. 

After China, India is the next biggest market in Asia-Pacific for baby food and infant formula, worth US$250m in 2014. However, though the country has a sizeable infant base, per capita consumption of baby food is low due a traditional preference among Indian mothers to feed fresh food to babies. Strict legislation governing the segment have also acted to slow growth.

Yum! to open first Taco Bell in China this year

Yum! Brands, the operator of KFC and Pizza Hut, plans to open its first Taco Bell store in China by the end of this year.

Taco bell

The American company, which has invested sizeably in China in recent years, now operates a total of 7,000 restaurants in the country.

Despite several food safety scandals and a slowing economy, Yum! has no intention to halt its pace of growth in the country, and last October set in motion a process to spin off its China operation into a distinct company headed by local management.

Yum! China will pay Yum! Brands a license fee of 3% of its sales for those three brands in China.

Taco Bell’s launch in China is part of an initiative to make transform it into a "global iconic brand​” alongside its stablemates, said chief executive Greg Creed at an industry conference. The first outlet is slated to open in Shanghai.

Sales have barely recovered since KFC was found to be selling tainted meat in China in 2014 despite a sizeable marketing campaign to assure customers. 

It appears that Creed is wooing the Chinese government through Yum!’s aggressive growth plans, with the company having the potential to employ around 1m people in the country at an anticipated 20,000 locations.

Job creation is important to the Chinese government, and we think our growth aligns with what the Chinese government wants to achieve​," Creed said recently. Currently the company employs roughly 450,000 staff in China, and employment is a high priority in Beijing as the country’s economy slows.

China first soil pollution law due in 2017 

Having declared war on pollution in 2014, Beijing is hoping to pass China’s first law to govern soil contamination next year to curtail damage caused by decades of industrial growth at the expense of ground quality.

Soil

China lacks dedicated legislation in this area, and officials are under pressure to reduce the risk of contaminated crops entering the food chain. 

Farming on 3.3m hectares of affected land has already been banned indefinitely and the country has suffered repeated farming scandals, especially concerning the contamination of rice with heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.

Looking at the results of soil pollution surveys from relevant departments of the State Council, our country’s soil pollution situation is generally speaking serious and it’s not easy to be optimistic​,” said Yuan Si, deputy head of the National People’s Congress environmental protection and resources conservation committee.

The basis for our country’s soil pollution prevention work is weak​,” Yuan said, adding that officials currently lack any legal basis for supervising pastoral land.

While China already has air and water pollution legislation, a law governing soil pollution be only be put on the legislative agenda next year after the drafting process began in 2013.

It will stipulate the division of duties between government agencies, the establishment of a surveying and monitoring system, and increased funding, Yuan said.

New technique enables fast, accurate measurement of bacteria levels

Chinese-led research has found a fast, accurate and non-invasive technique for monitoring the growth of pathogenic microorganisms that makes it easier to estimate the amount of bacteria within food containers or blood samples at any given time.

Pathogens

The researchers, from Zhejiang Normal University in China and Sweden’s Umeå University, said that a better understanding of the growth process of microorganisms could reduce food waste and prevent people from being sickened by food poisoning.

Using a technique referred to as tuneable diode laser absorption spectroscopy (TDLAS), the team was able to develop an easy-to-use instrument to assess bacterial growth of various types of samples under a variety of conditions.

TDLAS is by far the most common laser-based absorption technique for quantitative assessments of species within a gas phase. It can be used to measure the concentration of specific gaseous species—including carbon monoxide, CO2, water and methane—within gaseous mixtures by using absorption spectrometry based on tuneable diode lasers.

One major advantage TDLAS offers is its ability to achieve very low detection limits, on the order of parts per billion​,” said Jie Shao, lead author. 

Apart from concentration, it’s also possible to determine other properties of the gas under observation—temperature, pressure, velocity and mass flux​.”

The group’s basic setup simply involved a tuneable diode laser as the light source, beam shaping optics, the sample, receiving optics and one or more detectors.

The emission wavelength of the laser was tuned over a characteristic absorption line  transition of the species within the gas being assessed​,” said Associate Professor Shao. 

This caused a reduction of the measured signal intensity, which we could use to determine the gas concentration​.”

When the wavelength was rapidly tuned across the transition in a specific manner, it could be combined with wavelength modulation, which gave the TDLAS technique an enhanced sensitivity, known as WM-TDLAS.

By applying the technique to transparent containers of organic substances like food items or medical samples, bacterial growth could be quickly evaluated. 

Although we anticipated that the WM-TDLAS technique would be suitable for assessing bacterial growth, we didn’t expect this level of accuracy​,” Prof. Shao noted.

In contrast with conventional and more invasive techniques that require contact with the tested items, the WM-TDLAS method is truly noninvasive, making it ideal for monitoring the status of food and medical supplies, or as a tool to determine under which environmental conditions bacterial growth is expected to be severe. It can provide real-time analysis​.”

The researchers now plan to enhance the technique to allow for assessments of microbial growth in a wider variety of samples, expanding beyond food items and medical supplies.

Source: Applied Optics

doi: 10.1364/AO.55.002339
Wavelength-modulated tuneable diode-laser absorption spectrometry for real-time monitoring of microbial growth​.”
Authors: Jie Shao, Jindong Xiang, Ove Axner and Chaofu Ying.

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