Over­seas Chi­nese use WeChat to or­der del­i­ca­cies, but is it safe?

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHANG JUN in San Fran­cisco junechang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

An in­sa­tiable ap­petite for home­made del­i­ca­cies and an app are trans­form­ing the way over­seas Chi­nese pre­pare and eat their meals, al­though some con­cerns have been raised about food safety.

De­vel­oped by Chi­nese tech gi­ant Ten­cent and re­leased in 2011, WeChat now has more than 800 mil­lion users. The app has also spurred the un­der­ground food in­dus­try to flour­ish among Chi­nese Amer­i­cans.

It’s a blend of a so­cial me­dia net­work and e-com­merce plat­form — and “ba­si­cally Face­book, Ama­zon, Yelp, Twit­ter, Venmo and Net­flix rolled into one” — as Hans Tung, man­ag­ing part­ner at GGV Cap­i­tal, once called it. WeChat en­ables large or small-scale ven­dors, the so-called WeChat busi­ness ( we is hang), to ad­ver­tise and sell what­ever mer­chan­dise that might in­ter­est mem­bers to a so­cial group capped at 500 mem­bers.

A B2C or P2P busi­ness model is based on whether the ven­dor is a busi­ness en­tity or in­di­vid­ual. we is hang es­pe­cially thrives in the culi­nary sec­tor thanks to over­seas Chi­nese peo­ples’ lim­it­less de­sire for home­town del­i­ca­cies and fresh, healthy food in­gre­di­ents.

Lily Zhang, a Sichuan na­tive and now a res­i­dent of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, said she couldn’t find au­then­tic Sichuan cui­sine at any lo­cal restau­rants af­ter she moved from the east coast to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 2005.

“That’s un­til this Jan­uary, af­ter I joined our lo­cal Pleasan­ton Din­ers WeChat group,” she said, adding that now she can or­der home­made crown daisy rice cakes, chicken with cayenne pep­per, spicy sausage and steamed ju­jube flower buns from ven­dors.

“They taste just as good as they did in my mem­o­ries,” she said.

Zhang said the ven­dor usu­ally sends mes­sages about food avail­abil­ity with pic­tures and a short de­scrip­tion to the WeChat group, an­swer­ing ques­tions on in­gre­di­ents, prepa­ra­tion and de­liv­ery times.

Cus­tomers can choose from sev­eral sites for food pick­ups.

“Once you’ve sub­mit­ted the form, you’re done. It’s very con­ve­nient and easy,” Zhang said. “On­line food shop­ping on WeChat is now my big­gest ex­pen­di­ture ev­ery month. It can be as much as $1,000 and I think it’s worth it.”

Athena Li, a busi­ness an­a­lyst on a hec­tic work sched­ule and a mom to a 5-month old, said she turns to we is hang for in­stant din­ner so­lu­tions.

“I don’t have the lux­ury of two to three hours for din­ner prepa­ra­tion, so the ready-to-cook com­bi­na­tion of meat and veg­eta­bles, both or­ganic and freshly raised and picked up from lo­cal farms, has be­come my top choice,” Li said.

The an­a­lyst rou­tinely or­ders or­ganic cau­li­flower, broc­coli, kale, squash and beet, to­gether with pork, beef and chicken, and asks for same-day home de­liv­ery.

“As a new mom feed­ing my daugh­ter, I can’t af­ford to have pol­luted or heav­ily-pro­cessed food,” Li said, adding that her on­line-to-off­line food-shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence so far has been pleas­ant.

“I’ve asked sev­eral times about where the food comes from and they said … within a ra­dius of 30 miles,” she added.

Once you’ve sub­mit­ted the form, you’re done. It’s very con­ve­nient and easy.” Lily Zhang, ven­dor cus­tomer

De­spite the ap­peal of or­der­ing on­line, there are some food safety con­cerns, be­cause most of the in­di­vid­ual ven­dors are not li­censed or reg­u­lated. The State of Cal­i­for­nia in 2012 passed a so-called cot­tage food law that al­lows some home­made food to be sold on a small scale.

On the law’s non-po­ten­tially haz­ardous food list are jams, pas­tries and con­fec­tions such as fudge and fla­vored pop­corn. Meat is pro­hib­ited from any trans­ac­tions. The is­sue of food safety and in­tegrity is a con­cern of Jun Wang, a chemist in south San Fran­cisco.

“The fear of food-borne ill­ness and be­ing un­com­fort­able with the sources of food sold on WeChat keeps me away from them, al­though they re­ally make my mouth wa­ter some­times,” Wang said. “(But) I would rather re­sist the temp­ta­tion than end­ing up with a visit to a hospi­tal emer­gency ward,” he said.

“Food stor­age, trans­porta­tion and pro­cess­ing; the whole process needs high-stan­dard quar­an­tine and tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity con­trols. I don’t think ven­dors are suf­fi­ciently equipped with the re­quired knowl­edge.”

Reg­u­la­tions for weis­hang and food ven­dors through WeChat are not in place. There are no US reg­u­la­tions say­ing peo­ple can’t buy from un­li­censed ven­dors.

“I will con­tinue to (buy) un­til one day the gov­ern­ment bans them,” Lily Zhang said, adding that she was about to pick up a new or­der of steamed pork buns and dumplings.

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