2014 ended with yet another unfortunate case of a food safety lapse in China as a fast-food chain announced that it is investigating Chinese media claims of staff manipulating the expiry date on various foodstuffs.

In many ways not a surprise, given the frequency with which such events have occurred over the year. Food service in China remains an industry with high turnover, with many relatively new and unskilled employees, and with a high degree of delegation to local restaurant managers.

Creating a culture that rejects taking short cuts and that puts safety first is a tough and in many ways never-ending task. Stores are benchmarked and ranked against each other on profit and revenue, and often profits are low.

It is unsurprising that the wrong choices can be made at the local level. Even as increasingly large-scale and professional suppliers are providing fully safe food to restaurants, effective control in the store remains the ultimate challenge.

I am more confident of progress in packaged foods sold through supermarkets or even direct to consumers, certainly in first and second tier cities. As larger companies, both Chinese and non-Chinese, establish a safety element in their brands, they need to push upstream themselves, either directly owning suppliers or at least managing all the way back to the farm.

The farms themselves are consolidating at an incredible pace. In many sectors, the era of the family plot of land as farm is ending. Large customers won’t buy from them, and as it has become increasingly simple to sell land use rights, many farmers choose that option as the next generation has already moved to the city for good.

I am hopeful, but not certain, that in 2015, as these trends continue, that we will get more comfortable with the quality of what is sold by national food brands in national retail chains. I wish I could be more confident about restaurants, individual or chain – but the challenges to control behavior in individual outlets remains enormously high. And remember it only takes one failure in one store to taint an entire chain’s reputation.

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Image credit: Eddie F / Flickr