Last issue reported that China Food and Drug Administration has recently released a consultation document “Proposed Regulatory Control on Online Food” (Proposal). Some of the proposed control measures for online food include:
1. Licensed / Registered Online Food Sellers
The proposal suggests that online food sellers must obtain a license from or register with the regulatory authority before they are allowed to sell online food. I think this is a good suggestion enabling the government to collect information about online food sellers, and whenever necessary, trace and monitor them.
In Hong Kong, the Food Safety Ordinance (Cap. 612) already stipulates that online food importers & food distributors must register with the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene (DFEH). The goal is to help the Government to trace the source of the food more effectively and take prompt action when dealing with food incidents. However, if online food sellers are pure retailers, they won’t register with the DFEH; and the government also won’t know they exist. Late discovery of their presence (e.g. after an online food safety incident) shall uncover the government is not proactive enough to address food safety problems.
2. Handling Food with Special Requirements on Storage, Transport, Consumption, etc. by Online Food Sellers
If online food sellers sell food requiring special care e.g. fresh keeping, temperature holding, freezing or chilling, etc., the proposal requires them to adopt appropriate food safety control measures during storage & transportation, or ask for help from a company capable of storing / delivering the food safely.
In my opinion, this is a right direction to safeguard online food safety. As mentioned earlier, improper transport of online food can lead to food deterioration (e.g. bacteria multiply due to failure in maintaining refrigerated / frozen food at required low temperature during transportation). There’s no doubt online food sellers bear the primary responsibility to assure food transportation is appropriate, so that the online food products finally delivered to consumers are safe for consumption.
Moreover, for those foods with special requirements on storage, transport and consumption, the proposal requires online food sellers to clearly state the relevant information and provide hints in the online shopping platform.
Regarding “higher risk online food” (e.g. perishable & ready-to-eat seafood), I think stringent control is essential to protect the health of consumers.
Image Source：NCDD, 2015
3. Evaluating Supplier by Online Food Sellers
The proposal also requires online food sellers to check the licenses held by their food suppliers and documentary proof on food product compliance (e.g. test report or other evidences), and display the relevant information on a conspicuous location of the online shopping platform webpage.
I always recommend food buyers (including online food sellers) to audit their suppliers periodically and ensure their foods are safe before purchasing and re-selling to consumers. Supplier audit can protect the brand and reputation of food sellers, and reduce the risks of compensation due to selling problematic food, in addition to consumer protection. Supplier assessment can either be done by buyers themselves or an independent party on their behalf.
4. Inspection Regime from Online Shopping Platform Providers
Apart from specifying the responsibilities of online food sellers, the proposal also requires online shopping platform providers to establish a unit or designate a management staff to inspect / check online food sold in their platforms and the associated food information. They are required to stop illegal activities (e.g. false information, hype, outside the business scope, etc.), food quality and safety problems, including the potential ones.
In other words, online shopping platform providers are required to routinely and closely monitor online food sellers. It seems to me such a requirement may be unfair to the online shopping platform providers and may even be infeasible. This is because they are neither regulatory authority nor competent enough to evaluate food information and handle food safety problems. Government should bear the primary responsibility to monitor online food sellers instead. On the other hand, online platform providers should always try their best to co-operate with the government to avoid problematic food from releasing into the market (e.g. suspend online shopping platform service in a timely manner).
Purchasing food over the internet is a growing trend, and safety of online food is therefore worth for concern. Although current food laws in Hong Kong “generally” applies to all food including online food, regulatory control on certain areas are still inadequate and not specific enough (e.g. registration and responsibilities of online food sellers, display of essential food information on an online shopping platform webpage, cold chain monitoring, target surveillance on online food, etc.).