It is suspected that sandwiches (from a Taiwanese brand) causing a number of food poisoning cases earlier were purchased from online shops. This arouses public concern on the safety of “online food”, and wonder if existing regulatory control on this type of food is sufficient.
Today more and more consumers love purchasing food over the internet. “Convenience” is absolutely a major reason. Consumers, without having to leave home, can buy their favourite food by simply clicking a mouse button over the online shopping platform, and selected food will then be delivered to their home shortly.
Moreover, online shops present a wide range of delicious food e.g. seafood, meat, fruit, drink, cooked food and ready-to-eat food produced / manufactured in different countries (e.g. Japan), but all can be delivered to your home direct.
Risks of Purchasing Food Online
1. Inaccurate and Insufficient Product Information
Unlike shopping food at supermarket / store in person, you will never see the real object when you purchase food online. Even if photos of food products are displayed on webpages, consumers still cannot confirm the quality and safety of food before placing an order.
Moreover, our government has not stipulated what kind of information relevant to food safety (e.g. shelf-life, production date, manufacturer name, etc.) must be displayed on the online shopping platform.
In order to earn more, online food sellers might provide false information about the online food, over-edit food photos and hide important information (e.g. food will expire soon). This may lead to a food safety problem.
2. Inadequate Monitoring and Control on Online Food Seller
In contrast to the traditional way of selling food, selling food online neither requires a shop built on the ground nor a business registration license from the government. This hinders the authority from monitoring, controlling and tracing online food sellers.
Indeed, if you want to sell food online, you may be only required to pay the “rental fee” for using an online shopping platform. The capital cost / burdened cost for committing an online food safety incident is relatively low.
3. Improper Transport of Online Food
The sale and transport of online food can be operated by different parties. For example, online food seller may be solely responsible for the sales issues while the delivery of online food to clients is outsourced to delivery service companies without quality assurance. If a truck used to transport online food is dirty and not disinfected periodically, or fails to maintain refrigerated / frozen food at required low temperature (to inhibit bacterial growth) during transportation, the quality and safety of the online food will go wrong.
4. Inadequate Self-Management of Online Food Seller
Online food sellers are not necessarily big companies. Instead, they are likely small business operators or even all alone. As such, they may not be competent enough or willing to be a responsible food retailer i.e. with self-management. Will they periodically test their online food against the legal requirements on food safety (e.g. heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides, toxins, etc.) and nutrition labelling? Will they conduct supplier audit and only source food from qualified suppliers which will be sold to consumers finally? Will they record down the source and buyer of online food to enable food traceability for a food safety incident?
Mainland’s Control on Online Food
In recent years the Mainland government also finds control of “online food” is important. For example, the latest version of “China’s Food Safety Law” clearly states that online food is subjected to control:
Online shopping platform providers shall require online sellers to register their online accounts using their real names.
Online shopping platform providers shall closely monitor the online sellers using their platforms. This includes checking required food business license(s), stopping illegal activities, reporting incidents to the government as well as stopping provision of platform service to seriously violated online food sellers.
Consumers are entitled to ask for compensation from online food sellers or food manufacturers. If online shopping platform providers fail to provide the real name, address and contact information of their online sellers, they will be responsible for the compensation (but they can claim for losses back from the online food sellers / food manufacturers).
This week (18th Aug 2015) China Food and Drug Administration releases a consultation document on “Proposed Regulatory Control on Online Food” 1，and would like to seek for opinions from different stakeholders. The ultimate goal is to strengthen control on online food.