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Business trends

Veggie vending machines take root in Shanghai

Information-packed bar codes assuage food safety fears

Vegetable vending machines, many set up inside condominium communities, are gaining popularity in Shanghai. (Photo by Naoki Matsuda)

SHANGHAI -- Vending machines stocked with the likes of carrots, peppers and tomatoes have become a common sight in China's largest city as QR codes empower the consumer to check where they were grown and when they were harvested.

Transparency of origin is vital information in a country that has endured years of shocking scandals that have seen dangerous and dubious food reach dinner tables.

"It gives me peace of mind to be able to buy safe vegetables easily, knowing where they came from," a resident of a condominium community here said.

"Nowadays, fewer and fewer stores sell vegetables the way they did in the past, and it's convenient to have more of these vending machines," the 56-year-old said.

The Shanghai government has stepped up efforts to put more machines into service in recent years, entrusting produce procurement and machine management to contractors. The machines sit in 2,100 locations, many of them on condo premises. A portion are locker-type facilities allowing online ordering and next-day pickup.

"We can provide safe food to residents by securing produce sourced from safe sources," a Shanghai government official said.

The need is there. In China, babies died in 2008 after drinking tainted formula. A chicken wholesaler was found in 2014 to have supplied expired meat to fast-food chains including McDonald's. Gutter oil collected from sewage drains makes its way into restaurant kitchens as cooking oil.

Improved traceability is catching on at supermarkets. Hema stores of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding feature bar codes for all merchandise, including imported crab and fish still in the tank. To see where they come from, simply scan their bar codes with a smartphone. Plans are underway to increase the stores from around 90 now to 100 by the end of the year.

Alibaba competitor JD.com also operates 7Fresh supermarkets where merchandise is tagged with QR codes.

Japanese products are sought after by Chinese shoppers, with many citing safety and quality. Businesses that help reassure nervous consumers about food safety may find fresh opportunities in China.

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