2013 / 2月
Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams
Following closely on the heels of healthcare, the food “cloud” is slowly coalescing into the government’s second cloud-based system. But for all that food is an everyday need and essential to public well-being, the food cloud has faced a number of problems. Central among them has been the lack of central planning and oversight. Instead, its precursors have been under the jurisdiction of various bodies and run on a diverse array of computer systems, which has hindered integration and created serious obstacles to development.
According to the Consumers’ Foundation, the number-one consumer-related news story reported in Taiwan’s media in each of the last five years has involved food safety. News about US beef imports has accounted for the three of the five. The other two involved the use of dangerous additives and ingredients in processed foods and the 2011 discovery of the presence of plasticizers in food products.
When Control Yuan member Cheng Jen-hung, a former chairman of the Consumers’ Foundation, had had his fill of these incidents, he penned an open letter calling on the government to create mechanisms to trace our foods back to their sources. His goal is “farm-to-fork” data that will allow the tracking of food products upstream to producers and downstream to retailers and will enable us to gain better control over the production chain.
In a recent editorial, the Economic Daily News argued that we are in dire need of a comprehensive food safety database run on a non-profit basis with government involvement.
In fact, the government has learned from the recent explosion of food safety incidents and has already built the relevant control and oversight mechanisms, among which are the Council of Agriculture’s “Taiwan Agriculture and Food Traceability System,” the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ “Taiwan Food Excellence Verification ICT Platform,” and the Department of Health’s “Taiwan Food Traceability System.” But the systems cover different sectors of our food production system and don’t communicate with one another, creating holes in food safety oversight.
In late 2012, the MOEA commissioned the Corporate Synergy Development Center (CSDC) to develop Taiwan Food Trace, a preliminary step in the government’s construction of a food cloud. The website connects and integrates the food tracing systems of various agencies via a cloud-based platform.
However, the current trial doesn’t cover fresh foods. Instead, it only integrates information from the DOH’s and the MOEA’s food-tracking systems, which target processed foods.
According to the CSDC, as of the end of 2012 the food cloud held data on some 5,557 products from 669 companies. Yeh Shen-chou, director of the CSDC’s Department of Industrial Management, says that a number of major food companies actively sought to participate in the cloud program following the plasticizer crisis, and that these companies, which include Uni-President, AGV Products, Hey Song, Taisun, Hsin Tung Yang, and I-Mei Foods, have willingly accepted consumer scrutiny.
The food cloud also allows members of the public access to its data by means of a computer or even a smartphone/tablet app. This means that consumers can use their smartphones to scan product barcodes, checking the available data while they are out shopping, provided, of course, that the products in question are listed in the cloud.
For example, someone scanning the barcode for “Hsin Tung Yang Garlic-Flavored Black Pig Sausage” into the food cloud’s smartphone app would find nutritional information as well as an inspection report on the finished product, including items such as whether the vacuum packaging was fully sealed.
Under the CSDC plan, the food cloud will offer two types of data, both provided by food producers. In addition to making production and processing records available to consumers, it will also contain non-public tracking data, which will only be examined by the government in the event of a food-safety crisis (e.g. the plasticizer scandal) to help investigators quickly uncover the cause.
More disappointing is that the food ingredients are treated as proprietary information and that the government has yet to make disclosure compulsory. At present, ingredient data is available for a total of just 136 food items manufactured by 26 companies, with the result that the cloud is so far of little use for tracking foods.
In preparation for the creation of a more comprehensive food cloud, the Executive Yuan has requested that the MOEA, DOH and COA accelerate the development of amendments to the law to require food producers to record the source and batch numbers of the ingredients used in processed foods.
Given that even a convenience store typically carries at least 1,500 products on its shelves, the 5,000-some food items for which data are currently available in the cloud are clearly inadequate. The food industry’s relatively slow adoption of computers and electronic record-keeping is also an obstacle to providing up-to-date information.
According to the MOEA, only about 10% of Taiwan’s 5,000-odd food producers use IT systems to monitor their manufacturing processes. Most of the other 90% still use pen and paper, making it much more difficult for them to participate in the cloud. For that reason, the CSDC’s Yeh believes that the continued development of the food cloud will depend on greater government guidance and encouragement to firms to upgrade their IT systems.
Since the Regulations on Traceability and Certification of Agricultural Products provide agricultural agencies with the necessary legal basis for eliciting records, the government plans to incorporate production records for agricultural products into the food cloud this year. The government is also holding open the possibility of integrating the agricultural industry cloud with the broader food cloud.
If this integration succeeds, the addition of production data for agricultural products will massively expand the food cloud. The domestic beef tracking system that the COA tested late in 2012 represented the first step in this direction.
In recent years, incidents ranging from worries about mad cow disease to the discovery of beta-adrenergic agonists in beef have ignited waves of panic about the safety of the US beef on the Taiwan market, causing cautious consumers to avoid it. This has led to a corresponding increase in demand for domestic beef. Unfortunately, the domestic industry is quite small—it produces only about 30,000 head of cattle each year.
Yang Jiayi operates a cattle ranch in Liujiao Township, Chiayi County, and competes on a basis other than price. For example, he tracks the production history of each of the 800-some head of cattle in his 0.6 hectare farm using ID numbers on tags in each animal’s ear.
The effort started six years ago, at a time when Taiwan’s agricultural agencies were very hands-off in their management of cattle operations. Yang, then in his early 30s, and a few other ranchers approached the National Animal Industry Foundation about voluntarily keeping records on their cattle. Though the other ranchers withdrew from the system after a few years, citing the high costs of participation, Yang stuck with it and established the Hong Jing company and the Royal Cattle brand of beef products. Yang has gone on to create an integrated production and sales operation, and become the only domestic beef producer to date to receive CAS certification.
Weng Cheng-ming, Hong Jing’s sales manager, says that the ranch’s cattle dine primarily on feed made from forage corn supplemented with enzymes that aid digestion for the young cattle and with soybeans for the mature cattle. The ranch makes daily notes on feedings and on any health concerns, such as a cough or diarrhea, that it enters into each cow’s electronic production record.
The facilities where the cattle are slaughtered, processed and packaged are also entered into the record. But none of this information is currently included in the food cloud. Instead, the only way to access it is by entering the number from an animal’s ear tag into the COA’s tracking system.
On the other hand, entering “Hong Jing” into the food cloud app enables you to access ingredient records (raw beef, soy sauce, cane sugar, and salt, all from Taiwan), finished product testing data (such as the E. coli count), and processing records for Hong Jing beef jerky.
Moving forward, the food cloud’s next step ought to be the seamless integration of all of Taiwan’s various food tracking and tracing systems, which would enable us to ensure the safety of every link in the food chain, all the way from farm to fork.