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Monday, July 18, 2016, 23:01

Data-based technology improving food safety

By Wang Yuke

HONG KONG - More local food companies are expected to adopt data-based technology to trace their products from the farm to the store, Vice-Chairman of the International Food Safety Association Cheung Chi-keung said on Monday.

This is to ensure the supply of safe, quality food to its customers, Cheung told Food Safety Forum 2016.

One of the themes of the forum was ways to increase consumer trust by making the food chain traceable and visible.

Improved food traceability is believed to minimize unwanted food safety issues. Cheung said Hong Kong as well as the Chinese mainland had fallen behind other developed economies in terms of employing QR code system to monitor food safety.

Food companies and catering enterprises that have implemented a code tracking system are still in a minority in the city, while the practice has become accepted in European countries like Germany, said Cheung, who is also the director of the food and nutritional sciences program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Consumers have become more aware about food safety after problematic or contaminated food incidents occurred since 2007. This included gutter oil, melamine-tainted milk powder and freshwater fish with malachite green.

Better food traceability enables every player in food chains to track all detailed inputs of the products throughout production, processing and distribution. Then anyone in the chain can make a quick response when something is wrong, explained Anna Lin, chief executive of GS1 Hong Kong.

GS1 Hong Kong is the first organization that supports Hong Kong food companies implementing barcode technology to enhance food traceability.

There are multiple reasons why it takes longer for the local catering industry to embrace cloud-based technologies to facilitate its food monitoring.

"For most food companies, they have had their own traditional food tracking method in place which may have been in use for years.

“Implementing a whole new code tracking system means they have to overhaul their old system, which is time-consuming," Cheung remarked.

Implementation of the cloud-based technology is costly both in itself and in manpower, he noted.

Besides, as Hong Kong just picks up the concept, implementation of a code tracking system remains totally voluntary for the time being, and the government has not contemplated enforcing it just as the German government does, Cheung added.

GS1 Hong Kong launched the Quality Food Traceability Scheme last year. It provides assessments for participant companies on their food tracing practice and food quality control performance. This is in line with the Global Food Traceability Regulations and Requirements.

Its objective is to recognize local enterprises which demonstrate excellence in food traceability. Maxim's Caterers Ltd participated in the scheme and was awarded the prize during the forum.

It proved a challenge to ditch the traditional food tracking system that relied on faxes and emails and implement a new cloud-based one, said Florence Fung, the quality assurance manager at Maxim's.

"We have tens of thousands of suppliers. We have to coordinate with them step by step to synchronize the tracking process."

From incubating the barcode tracking concept to pilot runs to completing the implementation, took almost two years.

The Protrace app launched by GS1 allows distributors, suppliers, retailers and customers retrieve product information by scanning the barcode on its packaging. This includes its origin, catching method and date and other information about the raw materials.

Heidi Ho, principal consultant of GS1 Hong Kong said the code tracking system integrated every participant in the food chain from the factory, the distributor, the supplier and finally to the retailer. Therefore, a strong interoperability was critical.

Corinna Fung, a spokesperson of GS1 Hong Kong, said customers could benefit from the barcode tracking approach.

She said some dishonest distributors would tamper with the expiry date. By scanning the barcode, customers can validate the expiring date on the label.

Despite the fact only a small number of local food companies take this approach, Cheung is convinced it will gain momentum quickly, driven by globalization. "It's just a matter of time," he added.

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