ID Cards Ensure Good, Safe Food
Is quality food always expensive? The Carrefour supermarket chain is proving otherwise with affordable produce sourced from certified farms. All foods, from pineapples to ready-to-eat roast chickens, come with an ID card that allows consumers to trace their origin.
ID Cards Ensure Good, Safe FoodBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 625 )
The hypermarket shopping rationale is currently being turned on its head.
In the past, customers went to hypermarkets for the convenience of one-stop shopping and cheap bulk purchases. But after a series of food scandals, convenience and low prices have been placed on the backburner as consumers worry whether their purchases are safe to consume.
Many people believe that safe food must come with a hefty price tag. But are “inexpensive” and “safe” incompatible? Carrefour is trying a new approach in a bid to prove otherwise.
Starting in 2013, Carrefour began to introduce a traceability system for its fresh produce. “Presently, 80 to 90 percent of our produce comes with the traceability agricultural product (TAP) label,” says Ho Mo-chen, public relations manager of Carrefour Taiwan, as she points at freshly harvested light green pineapples. A sign next to the pineapples reads “Jinjia Warrior,” the TAP product name.
When consumers scan the sign’s QR Code with a mobile phone, they get all the relevant information at a glance: information about the grower – in this case an agricultural cooperative in Pingtung County’s Changzhi Township - and even pesticide use. Ho accompanies purchasing department personnel to places of production across Taiwan – from Yunlin in central Taiwan to Pingtung in the south and Hualien and Taitung on the east coast – to ensure that most of the fruits and vegetables sold at Carrefour markets not only have a serial number but also a clear “ID card.”
Not only fresh produce but also cooked food comes with a TAP label. In April, Carrefour began to sell freshly roasted chickens whose crisp, golden brown skin makes one’s mouth water. On the transparent plastic box, consumers can find the production time and a QR Code. When scanned, all information about the chicken – where it was raised, slaughtered and packed –displays directly on the mobile phone screen.
Aiming to provide safe and inexpensive products, Carrefour went for TAP-labeled products and expanded the scope of products grown by farmers under contract. “Five years ago, we often had the Department of Health coming to take samples for inspection. But once in a while, when excessive pesticide content was discovered, the veggies had already all been sold,” explains Ho. “Therefore, we sat down and pondered how we could ensure good source management.”
Source management, however, is easier said than done. Since most farms in Taiwan are rather small, fruits and vegetables are purchased from many different sources, which greatly complicates management. “We thought that, if we use the Council of Agriculture’s TAP label for quality control, it's not just the government exerting control but also a third-party certification,” Ho says. In the beginning, it proved difficult to persuade the farmers to apply for TAP certification, but Carrefour offered to shoulder half of the certification costs to speed up the process.
Aside from demanding that farmers pass TAP certification to guarantee quality and safety, Carrefour also changed its procurement procedure, which originally left sourcing to the individual Carrefour stores. Carrefour switched to central procurement instead and expanded contract farming, which allowed the company to build stable, long-term cooperation with local farmers.
Since the contracts are long-term, the farmers can plan production and, given stable demand, they are willing to improve the farming environment, establishing personal accountability for every single head of lettuce and every single piece of fruit being sold.
“If you farm over a long period in a planned way, it doesn’t make sense that the vegetable price goes up,” argues Ho. “If you consider certification a basic cost, then it can’t become a reason for price increases.”
Quality and Specification Control
Cooked food constitutes a greater challenge in terms of traceability. On the second floor of the Carrefour market in Taipei’s Neihu District, the air is filled with the aromatic smell of roasted chicken. Although it is only 10 a.m., chicken after chicken emerges from the oven.
Carrefour buys all of its poultry from Taiwan Meat Shop With Heart, founded by veterinary doctor Richie Kuo. Kuo cooperates with TAP-certified poultry farms to ensure that the birds are raised in an appropriate environment and manner.
However, Carrefour specifications require each chicken to weigh between 1.3 kg and 1.4 kg because they need to fit in the ovens and standard boxes. These requirements pose a challenge for the poultry farmers.
“Last week, the farms produced 72,000 chickens, but only 5,000 of them met the Carrefour specifications,” notes Kuo. The non-compliant chickens are sold through different distribution channels.
“TAP certification tells everyone from whom I buy. I also worry that Carrefour will skip me over and directly buy from the farms. Nevertheless, here we are all subscribing to the spirit of Gung Ho, or the ‘common good’,” asserts Kuo.
The role of With Heart resembles that of a broker-style “wholesaler” who connects the farms with the sales channels. “For us, he plays a very important role, because in addition to checking quality and safety, he also controls [compliance with] product specifications,” Ho points out. Only if the three sides work smoothly together can customers rest assured that they are reaping the greatest benefit.
For Carrefour, realizing traceability for its roasted chickens constituted a milestone.
Step by step, a system had to be set up to provide consumers with all of the required traceability information for all parties involved along the production chain. But as more and more people buy cooked foods, such efforts naturally translate into the gradual recovery of consumer confidence.
The key to this is personal accountability for every single bunch of vegetables and every single bite of meat throughout the production chain.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz