“Would you like a coke with ice or a glass of water from the toilet? For your health sake, we recommend the latter.” KFC, McDonald’s and Kungfu would not have gone far with such a slogan, but their Chinese customers may have been better informed: if what was reported last Saturday by Chinese broadcaster CCTV is true, ice cubes sold by their outlets in Chongwenmen district, Beijing, contain more bacteria than the water in their toilet bowls.
The broadcaster reportedly tested ice cubes, discovering that bacteria concentration in KFC ice cubes was 19 times higher than China’s standard for drinking water and 12 times higher than samples taken from its toilets. According to the report, the amount of bacterial colonies found in Chinese chain Kungfu ice cubes was six times higher than toilet water, while McDonald’s ice fared better than the bathroom but was still below drinking standard.
Bad news if you like to crunch ice after drinking your coke. And an equally grim story for the mentioned companies, especially as news tends to behave just like bacteria: it spreads. As of today at around 11am, the original comment by CCTV had been reposted 186,927 times. On Sunday, KFC wrote on its Weibo account that it is “very sorry this has happened” and assured that the company’s quality control department is checking the suspected outlets. Kungfu and McDonald’s have humbled themselves with apologies too.
But it is hard to see how this will not end in more dissatisfaction among fast-food fans, even more so after other cases of scant regard for health safety were recorded in the past. Last year, Yum Brands – which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell – found itself in the eye of the storm as CCTV reported that chicken meat served by its stores contained more antibiotics than laws allow. KFC issued an apology, said it would look into the case and saw its sales fall. It also had to face a wave of criticism on social websites.
Not surprisingly, Weibo is teeming with posts on the latest grim discovery. “From this day on, I swear I won’t eat KFC or McDonald’s anymore!!!” says one user. “Apologizing means nothing, how come the government supervision department didn’t discover it?” contends another netizen. Some – as it is often the case on Chinese social media – find time to make fun: “it’s time for KFC to pay a protection fee to CCTV.”
Besides safety concerns, a likely reason for the strong reactionis that Chinese consumers often look at foreign brands as a safe haven amid local bad practices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dairy market, a sector where international brands have enjoyed very favorable conditions after a tainted milk scandal in 2008 which caused the death of six children and sickened over 300,000. According to China Daily, in recent times prices of baby milk powder produced by foreign companies have grown faster and faster as a result of strong demand, a proof that people are willing to pay more for better quality. But they get all the more angry if they feel cheated, as happened last year, when food scandals involving Carrefour and McDonalds sparked an outrage.
In any case, ice cubes are an issue well beyond China. On June 1, the British Daily Mail reported it had found that “ice from branches of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, Cafe Rouge and Nando’s all had higher levels of bacteria than samples of water taken from their lavatory bowls.” In both the UK and China the problem could be that the ice was contaminated by staff upon touching it or that ice machines are not cleaned as often as toilets. Well, at least the bathrooms are clean.