In a country overrun with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and mutton-selling street vendors, Western food chains in China have come to represent prosperity and social advancement. The Chinese domestic food market has become so riddled with food violations and health scandals that the likes of McDonald’s and KFC offer more than just standard Western foods – they offer foods with Western standards. However, with China’s Dragon TV recently exposing food safety violations from the American owned Shanghai Husi Food Co., which sold repackaged chicken and meat well past their sell-by date, those perceived high standards have dropped – along with the discarded Chicken McNugget.
A key food supplier for McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, KFC and Burger King, news of Husi’s infringements has claimed news headlines across the world, and according to the Wall Street Journal, led to over 27 million Chinese voicing their newfound distaste for foreign fast food and the Chinese food industry on China’s social media site, Weibo. Although these food violations are relatively rare for such well-known food suppliers, it is not the first time they have experienced such scandals in China, nor felt the full brunt of China’s state run media.
A McDonalds Beijing branch in 2012 was reported by CCTV to have sold beef that had fallen on the floor, as well as selling chicken wings that had been left out on a warming tray for over 20 minutes. McDonald’s apologized over social media sites, stating that it would enhance training at its stores, reported the Wall Street Journal at the time. Walmart encountered a similar scandal in the past, when they had 13 outlets closed and 37 Chinese employees detained, after they reportedly mislabeled cheaper pork as more expensive organic pork.
Such health violations are without doubt unacceptable, but still pale in comparison to domestic suppliers past violations. In 2013, Reuters reported that the Chinese company Kangrun had been charged with selling over US$9 million worth of cooking oil made from the notorious”gutter waste”, reused cooking oil scooped from the sewers. Last year also saw the widely reported bust of a food supplier outside of Shanghai, which resulted in the arrest of 63 people for passing fox, mink, rat and other meat off as lamb.
Incidents such as these, along with an extensive dog meat industry which culminates each year with the Yukon dog meat festival in Guangxi Province, where over 10,000 dogs are sacrificed and eaten, suggest that violations of Western health food standards in China take a backseat to the overall approach to food safety within the country. Yet this is far from how Beijing has portrayed the situation.
The focus that the state-owned media has placed on the violations of the Shanghai Husi Food Co., and the negative scrutiny generated towards foreign firms as a result, will surely coincide with a spur of growth in China’s domestic food brands, which are now viewed in a more favourable light. TIME Magazine views this latest fiasco as just one in a series of attacks on popular foreign brands and established foreign companies operating in China. It points out that Dragon TV, which aired the expired meat investigation, has avoided stating why it chose to investigate this supplier above others. Whether motivated as a smear campaign or not, it certainly has dented the reputation of foreign food chains in China and called into question the public’s faith in it, and that alone is food for thought.