Chinese company tracks pork
Asia & Australia,  Technology

As Chinese consumers shun pork, premium brands turn to blockchain

In tech-savvy Shenzhen, few consumers buy pork products with generic labels. Now, QR codes and blockchain are being used to win them round

In the well-heeled Chinese city of Shenzhen, consumers are becoming increasingly wary about the meat they buy—shunning pre-packaged products that offer generic information on the label.

Shoppers are painfully aware of the food safety scandals that have emerged in recent years. Gangs have been caught red-handed selling tons of frozen meat that was more than 40 years old, and hundreds of people have previously been sickened after eating pork laced with steroids to help pigs grow faster.

Trust but verify

Confronted with skepticism in the supermarket aisles, producers have been facing an uphill struggle in gaining trust—and offering credible evidence of quality in the few fleeting seconds when a shopper is making a purchasing decision. Now, a Shenzhen supermarket chain is planning to grab the attention of tech-savvy consumers by offering instantaneous details about a product’s provenance through blockchain.

Melamine-tainted milk and infant formula was pulled off supermarket shelves across China in 2008 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Meijiada Fresh Foods has started to use VeChain ToolChain, a blockchain-based traceability platform, to make its packaging more transparent. According to a VeChain blog post, QR codes transport consumers to a landing page where specific details about the pork’s origin, date of packaging, and supply chain history are given.

For companies like Meijiada, this is half the battle. Consumers are also increasingly keen to learn about how a hog was raised and the life it led, not about the journey it makes to their plate. Although it’s unlikely a shopper will end up on first-name terms with their dinner, details about the feed these animals were given can help assuage the fears of those concerned about unwanted ingredients such as steroids.

From that perspective, Meijiada’s reasons for using blockchain are similar to those of supermarket chain Carrefour, which pioneered using the technology in the consumer aisle by using QR codes that trace locally sourced French chickens back to the farm. Of course, Carrefour has some experience with skeptical Chinese shoppers, having apologized in 2012 after one of its stores there changed chicken expiration dates and claimed regular birds were free-range.

A long road to trust

By Meijiada’s own admission, winning round customers has been far from easy. It appears to be turning to blockchain because of how a lack of transparency “negatively affects its positioning as a premium brand.”

It is hoped that this end-to-end traceability will prove successful—and if it is, it will be subsequently rolled out to more Meijiada products. Given that Shenzhen has a population of more than 12.5 million people, widespread use could transform the relationship that consumers have with the food they buy, and force less scrupulous manufacturers to up their game.

Food safety scandals have plagued China for decades—and the issue was thrust into the spotlight once again as a result of COVID-19. Early on in the pandemic, when frenzied attempts were being made to detect the source of the outbreak in Wuhan, the finger was pointed firmly at a wet market where live animals are sold.

Although this is a straightforward narrative that’s easy to digest for media outlets and their readers, the reality may be far more nuanced than this. Coronavirus likely originated in bats or pangolins and leapt to humans, but it’s possible the wet market was a victim of COVID-19 rather than the cause. Even though calls to ban wet markets completely could seem like the best approach, this too could conjure up a plethora of unintended consequences, as they are a crucial source of food for millions.

The problem at hand is that food safety scandals happen with alarming frequency in China, and consumers have long memories. More than a decade after six infants died because of tainted baby formula, many Chinese families are still reluctant to feed these products to their children.

Food for thought

All of this helps to strengthen blockchain’s case as the answer to achieving full transparency and discouraging dishonest manufacturers from cutting corners. As reported by Modern Consensus last year, VeChain has also struck a partnership with Walmart China to deliver end-to-end traceability on dozens of popular products. The backstory of everything from meat and rice to cooking oil and mushrooms is being made public.

Blockchain solutions could become more popular in China owing to tough new food safety laws that were introduced last December. Under these measures, companies could be fined up to 10 times their annual income for the most egregious violations.

It is also worth noting that food safety isn’t just a problem that China has to deal with. America has been affected by multiple (and often deadly) outbreaks of E. coli, which have been linked to greens such as romaine lettuce and clover sprouts. Every incident results in a time-consuming investigation where it can take weeks to find the source of the problem, with tons of perfectly fine food going to waste.

According to Dole, which is using the IBM Food Trust’s platform, blockchain enables food safety investigations to be completed in “mere seconds”—speeding up recalls and boosting consumer confidence. The company is planning to use this technology to ensure all its products are fully traceable by 2025.

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Connor Sephton is a journalist with an interest in cryptocurrencies, personal finance, and financial inclusion—as well as the challenges the crypto industry faces in achieving mainstream adoption. He owns cryptocurrencies.