Potential of popular food-delivery apps spoiled by dubious vendor vetting practices

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, August 29, 2016
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It's hard to think of any industry that hasn't been touched by the Internet.

There is so much hype surrounding the concept of "Internet plus" that most people are tempted to believe that any industry touched by the liberating power of the Internet will thrive, while anachronisms unable to satisfy the dictates of the new online economy are barely worth a place in the market.

To some extent, this is true. Various segments of China's domestic economy are being transformed by the Internet — to the benefit of average consumers like me. We shop online, we book our movie tickets on smartphones, we even get perishables like fruits via mobile apps like FruitDay.

Not all the changes are for the better, though. The Internet has a particularly problematic impact on industries that merit closer official scrutiny. For instance, taxi-hailing apps encourage some drivers to be picky about which passengers they provide service to.

I'm also a big skeptic of the wildly popular practice of ordering takeaway food via mobile apps. A host of such apps — ele.me, Meituan, Baidu — have proliferated, all promising to deliver meals to your doorstep in the shortest time possible. Alas, the industry is marked by the same sort of corner-cutting seen throughout the much-touted digital economy — perhaps it's even a worse offender than most.

The Beijing-based Legal Daily newspaper published a story on August 14, citing a slew of scandals that have tarnished the overall reputation of online food-ordering services.

For instance, the paper pointed to instances where raw foodstuffs were rinsed in a bathroom wash basin; disposable meal boxes were recycled and re-used; an unlicensed eatery became a registered business on Meituan by submitting photocopies of legal paperwork from another restaurateur. Meituan failed to verify the provided information.

The quality and credibility of many supposedly certified eateries were further called into question during the summer, traditionally a peak season of food safety incidents.

Some of these offenders should not have been in the catering business in the first place. A highlight of the annual CCTV program on March 15, Consumer Rights Day, is when the state broadcaster unveils a list of businesses that were found to be violating consumer rights during the previous year.

During this year's program, ele.me was among those named and shamed for its failure to weed out ineligible food vendors. In the wake of this startling revelation, thousands of ele.me-registered eateries had their partnerships discontinued. But they didn't vanish; instead, many simply turned to other food-ordering apps.

A few even got re-listed on ele.me, said the Legal Daily report. These unlicensed eateries are often run out of appalling unsanitary family kitchens. For some small establishments, it seems the bar hasn't been raised far enough.

Greasy tables

The other day my wife and I took a stroll after dinner. As we sauntered down Songhong Lu in Changning District, I noticed a street-side eatery embellished with the yellow kangaroo logo of Meituan. A few motorbikes parked outside carried delivery boxes that bore the same logo. I stopped and peered into this small, unappetizing establishment. A bin next to the door overflowed with leftovers. Used paper napkins were strewn about the doorway. I could not help but frown at how greasy the tables looked. A woman was washing dishes in a bucket without wearing gloves. All in all, it was a scene of squalor. "The kitchen might be worse," I thought.

By the way, I didn't see any credentials issued by China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) hanging on the wall, which is required of all restaurateurs. Exactly how Meituan verifies and approves the applications of eateries like these is beyond my imagination.

Since food safety is of paramount importance to the public, online food-ordering services have a duty to ensure that only candidates with the right kind of qualifications can be listed on their apps. Failure or reluctance to do so constitutes both a betrayal of consumers' trust as well as a disregard of food safety regulations. Efforts are also needed to break information silos between the public and private sector. The verification process could be much easier, and more effective, if authorities are willing to share information with app operators. With transparency measures in place, those using forged documents in the registration process will quickly be exposed.

It's vital that the power of the Internet be harnessed in service of public interests, not against them.

If food-ordering apps thwart efforts to improve food safety and safeguard public health, their operators need to think hard about where they're going wrong, and how they can use technology to empower their customers.

Meanwhile, CFDA officials must also prepare themselves for potential crises brought about by the Internet, and also respond in a timely manner to newly-emerged loopholes in regulation.

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