2011-12-15

Ensuring That China's Pork Habit Doesn't Make People Sick

Because food safety in China can sometimes be… suboptimal, health inspectors there can now scan a pork chop at the supermarket and know what pig it came from, where it was slaughtered, and if it was stored at proper temperatures.

As a fast-growing country, China consumes many things at an alarming rate—things like gasoline, coal, and pork. China is one of the world’s biggest pork producers and consumers (it consumes approximately half of all pork produced worldwide and even has a secret strategic pork reserve), but there is no shortage of tainted meat concerns in the country.

IBM has already brought its analytics technology to fruit and vegetable companies worried about outbreaks; now the technology giant is moving onto China’s massive pork supply.

IBM recently deployed a pilot pork monitoring and tracking system at six slaughterhouses, six warehouses, and 100 supermarkets in the Shangdong Province, a major pork production hub. The system monitors temperature, humidity, GPS, and other geographic information to ensure that high-risk pork shipments don’t end up in a customer’s mouth unless they have been inspected.

Here’s how the system works: Every pig that goes through the slaughterhouse is tagged in the ear with a bar code and scanned. As the pig moves through the processing center, all of its parts retain that bar code. "As they package pork chops, they can relate pork chops to a single animal and maintain traceability all the way through," explains Paul Chang, a food safety expert at IBM.

Say, for example, there’s flooding in a certain area. This can often lead to E. coli outbreaks. With the tagging system, IBM can trace back potentially contaminated pigs to a single farm—or even just recall items from a single contaminated pig. Or if sensor suggests that something is off with a pig’s storage temperature, suppliers know to inspect that pig before sending it off for consumption.

The whole thing is a little gruesome—certainly not as happy-go-lucky as the video above of IBM’s analytics being used to track tomatoes from farm to table. But China won’t stop eating pork anytime soon. And for now, at least, suppliers are excited about the opportunity to use analytics. "We’ve seen suppliers fairly aggressively pursuing this because at this stage, it creates a bit of competitive advantage for them. They can command premium prices," says Chang.

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