BEIJING - With a few days left before Chinese New Year, a Carrefour supermarket in down-town Beijing is saturated with customers, pushing past mountains of bagged roast duck and revolving pyramids of luxury chocolate. A complete pig carcass hangs behind the meat counter, illuminated by a blue LED light, revealing a series of numbers printed on the meat's surface.
“These numbers show the date that the pig was slaughtered, and which shipment the pig is part of,” Zhang Bo, a worker for Beijing based company ZHD Laser said, pointing out the marks with an LED torch. ZHD has installed systems at two slaughterhouses in Beijing which use lasers to burn these codes onto the pigs after they are slaughtered, part of a food-safety plan launched this week by the Beijing government.
Pork is China’s most popular meat, and Beijing alone will consume nearly 30,000 pigs a day over the New Year period. But eating pork in China can be risky. Last year, more than 4 million pounds of pork were recalled by the Chinese government after pigs in central China were found to have been injected with a fat-reducing drug called Clenbuterol. Money-conscious Beijingers worry that water is injected into pork in order to increase its weight.
In response, Beijing's Government has launched the “Meat Reassurance” project. As well as the codes etched onto pig’s bodies with lasers, customers at sixty-seven supermarkets across Beijing will receive a printed code each time they buy pork, which can be used to check where where it was slaughtered. The project has already cost the government 2 million RMB (about 160,000 USD), and will be extended to cover all the city’s supermarkets and over eighty percent of its wholesale markets within three years, ZFD's CEO Yuan Peng, said. Supermarkets and slaughterhouses will pay for about two thirds of the project's costs, according to Yuan.
Few customers at the Carrefour branch were aware of project, or the significance of the bar codes attached to their freshly purchased pork. Machines installed to help customers check the origins of their meat have hardly been used, supermarket staff said. “I'm worried about food safety, but think the meat at this supermarket is more reliable, that’s why I’m willing pay extra to shop here” one customer said. The majority of Beijing's meat is still sold in fresh food markets, while supermarkets have more appeal for middle-class consumers.
The project helps Beijing's government to investigate food safety problems, Yuan said. “In the past the people responsible [for unsafe meat] would often escape the blame, unless they were secretly filmed by the media,” he said. “Now we can track exactly where the meat has travelled from, which means if there is an outbreak of poisoning, the government can easily check who is responsible,” he said. ZFD equipped slaughterhouse meat hooks with RFID Chips as part of the project, which are used to record the weight of pigs before and after they leave the slaughterhouse.
The Meat Reassurance project is part of the Chinese government’s efforts to promote the “Internet of Things” – equipping ordinary objects with microchips, sensors and barcodes which allow them communicate information digitally. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his support for the industry in 2009, and the Chinese government has designated the Internet of Things amongst the list of “strategic industries" which will receive 1.7 trillion USD in government investment over the next five years. Most Internet Of Things investments will fund transport and logistics projects, including GPS tagging for shipping containers, and automated traffic control systems, according to the Internet of Things Association in Shenzhen, southern China.
The Chinese government sees the Internet of Things as a way to automate and rationalise governance. “With a system like this, everyone’s role is clearer, and there’s less room for individual mistakes,” Yuan said. All Chinese cities with a populations above 1.5 million people will be required to install a meat monitoring system over the next five years, Yuan said. ZFD plans to list on the Shenzhen stock exchange in the next few years. “Government investment in the internet of things is likely to be huge, and we hope to win a lot more contracts,” he said.
Pictures: Tom Hancock, ZFD.