BEIJING, Nov. 3 (Xinhua) -- Gone are the days when people throng out of office blocks for a quick bite at lunch. In Chinese cities today, busy office workers have their meals delivered after a few simple touches on a smartphone. The process takes a few minutes, and who can resist a good online discount?
The marriage of a fledgling mobile Internet industry with the Chinese love for food has created an explosion in online catering businesses over the past two years. Hundreds of thousands of dishes are now a swipe away on the three dominant delivery platforms - waimai.meituan, waimai.baidu, and ele.me, or the "Big Three."
But do the mouth-watering pictures on the phone match the sanitary conditions we expect? Recent investigations by Xinhua and other media outlets reveal worrisome findings.
In theory, online catering platforms require restaurants to post pictures of their business license and health certificates online where customers place their order. While most comply, some flounder and post blurred or fake images.
A store that franchises American fast-food chain Subway on ele.me was found to have an expired license; in another case the localization photo of a nondescript restaurant registered as Mr. Bread led Xinhua reporters to well-known spicy food chain Wushan Roasted Fish.
Li Jiang, an official with the Beijing food and drug safety watchdog, said an expired license is as good as not having one, and those who give fraudulent information will be severely punished.
There are around 58,000 eateries in Beijing offering food delivery services on the three dominant platforms, plus a minor one named Daojia, Li said. District food safety watchdogs conduct regular raids to ensure everyone plays by the rules.
While the authorities have not yet received any reports of major food safety cases, there are unverified comments left on these platforms complaining about diarrhea and worse.
Other media outlets have exposed appalling scenes. A City Times reporter found that flowing sewage, thick oil stains, leftovers, and scattered chop sticks were a common scene at a popular hotpot restaurant in the southwestern city of Kunming.
The restaurant had been open for only five months and had positive online ratings, listing ahead of 77 percent of its competitors.
Few customers bother to check restaurant licenses before ordering.
"To be honest, I only pay attention to ratings and other customers' comments," said Ma Juan, a Beijing office worker. "If a restaurant has a poor sanitary record then its rating will not be high, right?"
China had 688 million Internet users by the end of 2015, with more than 90 percent using smartphones.
A recent report by think tanks FutureX and the Data Center of China Internet (DCCI) showed that around 150 million Chinese used online catering services as of June 2016. The figure rose by 32 percent in six months and keeps growing.
The country has strict food safety regulations, but the proliferation of kitchens and restaurants riding the e-commerce boom makes supervision more difficult.
Last year, the national legislature amended its seven-year-old Food Safety Law, adding provisions to govern online vendors.
A report by the Ministry of Commerce in September said around 8,000 unlicensed online eateries were ordered to close in just two weeks in late August to early September, after an unannounced city-wide food safety inspection.
An anonymous worker at one of the "Big Three" said many vendors simply reopen on rival platforms, a phenomenon that discourages platforms from closing down "problem" vendors, especially the popular ones.
"The three platforms are fighting for market share. If one strengthens supervision while the others do not, vendors jump ship taking their customers with them. The one who abides by the law loses," he said. "Technologically speaking, it is not a big deal for a platform to kick out unruly vendors. But does it really want to?"
The DCCI report says the "Big Three" account for nearly 90 percent of market share among young office workers, catering services's main users.
Confronted with Xinhua's findings, both meituan and ele.me declined to comment. Baidu repeated that it requires all registered vendors to post authentic licenses on their web wage and runs regular checks to ensure compliance.
Fu Weigang, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, says the proliferation of "problem kitchens" has everything to do with lax supervision of online platforms, which sacrifice food safety to cut staffing costs and reach more customers.
Fu suggested that the authorities mobilize the public to become informants on vendors and platforms who do not play by the rules.
"Informants should be rewarded so they are encouraged to help law enforcers spot violations," he said.