Can smart chopsticks and other gadgets make food safer in China?

This is not gutter oil.
This is not gutter oil.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Baidu, the Chinese internet search giant, showed off an intriguing prototype at its annual Beijing conference yesterday. Baidu Kuaisou is a set of “smart chopsticks” that can tell you whether your food was cooked with potentially toxic recycled cooking oil—better known as “gutter oil,” because it sometimes is pulled from sewers.

In the future, the chopsticks could also test contaminated water, Baidu said. The company may also make food-testing devices that detect melamine in dairy, and calories and contaminants in food (you can watch a demonstration here).

As China grapples with ongoing food, environmental, and agricultural contamination, expect more food safety innovations like Baidu’s. Already, researchers at Tianjin University of Science and Technology are working on a food testing kit for consumers that will detect 60 different chemicals and “identify food products contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and excessive drug residues.” Over at Taobao, the online shopping mall, there are hundreds of food testing kits designed for consumer use, from this $6 family safety “rapid test trip” to a $120 fruit testing device:

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Consumers are also turning to organic food and even buying up insurance policies on their milk powder in case it is recalled.

Naturally, there has been a food safety testing industry in China  since the 1990s. And it has grown rapidly in recent years. Sales were estimated at 4.4 billion yuan ($716 million) last year.

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But the industry’s reach is obviously limited, judging by the amount of contaminated and fraudulent food foisted on the Chinese public in recent years, from the tragic melamine milk powder scandal of 2008 to recent reports of fake and sometimes deadly meat.

Even after these incidents, and government pledges to improve food safety, the testing industry remains over-taxed, under-regulated and not set up to actually detect dangerous food—at least judging from the latest food scandal. A supplier to McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets using expired meat was not caught earlier by inspectors because inspections were scheduled and announced, so the expired goods were hidden beforehand.

Testing on its own probably can’t solve the problem. One consumer-focused independent website called “Throw it out the window” advises citizens to change how they eat as well. The website tracks food scandals across China from news reports, and features a map which shows the prevalence of food safety incidents in different regions over time:

The founder of the website, Wu Heng, has some blunt advice about how to shop and eat in China. “Shop at regular places, pay regular prices, rotate your poison,” he advised in a recent interview with The New York Times. Consumers should change brands and food varieties often, he said, “and in this way if something is unsafe it cannot accumulate in you.”