In Coops of the Future, Robot Nannies Look After 3 Million Chickens in China

China’s consumers have good reason to be skeptical about their groceries as it is a nation where food safety is so elusive that even some chicken eggs have been found to be fake. And therefore novel ways to highlight the wholesomeness of their products have been sought for by many food processors.

But in what could be viewed as an extreme measure, to convince customers its birds are healthy, a poultry powerhouse Charoen Pokphand Group is deploying a flock of robots.

Daily checkups from machines dubbed “nanny robots” are given to about 3 million laying hens raised near Beijing by the Bangkok-based conglomerate. Monitoring the fowls’ temperatures and movements and rolling through a massive complex of windowless coops for 12 hours a day are the sensor-filled humanoids, perched atop a base with wheels. To protect the rest of the brood and keep sick birds and their eggs from reaching kitchen tables, human colleagues pluck feverish or immobile birds from their cages.

The mainland poultry industry expected to reach $138.2 billion in revenue within five years and 18 automatons to curtail outbreaks of bird flu and food-borne illnesses that plague the industry are being used by CP Group, China’s third-largest poultry producer.

“Food safety is a major problem in China,” says Xie Yi, a senior vice chairman of CP Group’s China agribusiness unit. “We want to control the whole chain from the farm to the table. Problems sometimes involve human error, so full automation enhances the safety level.”

According to market researcher IBISWorld, after the U.S., China is the world’s largest producer of eggs and the second-biggest grower of chickens. An estimated $100.7 billion in revenue last year was generated by the nation’s poultry industry—including chickens, ducks, geese, ostriches, and quail.

According to IBISWorld, with the five biggest companies accounting for only 9.7 percent of market share, the business is highly fragmented. Including many selling eggs and slaughtered-while-you-wait meat at roadside markets, most of the industry consists of hundreds of thousands of family-owned farms.

Primarily due to poor sanitation, lack of refrigeration, or overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, the government’s inability to monitor all those suppliers allows leaks to spring in the food safety pipeline. In December 2016 alone, China’s agriculture ministry reported at least two bird flu outbreaks at chicken farms.

125 million people get sick and 50,000 die annually from food-borne illness in the World Health Organization region that includes China. From the fake beer and potentially radiation-tainted seafood discovered in 2016 to melamine-laced concoctions sold as milk that killed six people in 2008, the Chinese food industry also is rife with scandal.

In 2015, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said they were discovered being sold at a street market in Guangzhou and since then fake eggs have plagued Chinese consumers since that time. While the egg white and yolk were a mixture of sodium alginate, gelatin, and tartrazine, the shells were made of calcium carbonate.

“Food safety is very high on the political agenda,” Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO’s representative in China, said in an e-mail. “Building on these improvements, there is more that can be done.”

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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