China’s Latest Food Safety Scandal: A Shanghai Media Exposé Delivers a Message from Beijing

Politics Society

A scandal involving a Shanghai-based meat supplier’s use of expired and spoiled materials has impacted major fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut and caused a commotion not just in China but also in Japan and elsewhere. Reports of tainted food have become commonplace in China, causing alarm among the general public. Public anger over this chronic problem is close to the boiling point, and it seems likely that the recent exposé in Shanghai was made at the direction of the Chinese government as part of its response to the situation.

China’s Booming Fast-Food Industry

The company at the center of the tainted-meat scandal is Shanghai Husi Food, a meat supplier with capital of 50 million yuan (about $8.2 million), wholly owned by the US-based OSI Group. OSI boasts nearly a century in the food business and runs processing plants in 17 countries; it entered the Chinese market in 1991 and now has operations in Shanghai, Dalian, Guangzhou, and other major cities around the country. OSI had been producing for McDonald’s in China since1992 and had also been supplying chicken nuggets for some McDonald’s restaurants in Japan until the recent scandal came to light.

In China, fast food has been gaining popularity as economic development boosts the standard of living. There are now said to be close to 500,000 fast-food restaurants across the nation, employing 3 million workers and ringing up 80 billion yuan ($13 billion) in annual sales.

As ordinary people in China have become increasingly affluent, they have come to take pleasure in dining at chic Western-style fast-food chains, where they can often be seen eating hamburgers and such with their children. The latest scandal has heightened concerns over food safety, though, making people ask, “If it’s not safe to eat here, can it be safe anywhere?”

Spoiled Meat Processed and Shipped

Shanghai-based satellite television network Dragon TV brought the activities of Husi Food to light after sending a reporter to work incognito at the company for two months. In an evening news broadcast on July 20, it showed footage of employees processing meat clearly labeled as expired and other blatant violations of safety standards. The story sent shockwaves around China and beyond its borders.

According to the report, it was standard practice at the Husi plant to dump blocks of meat beyond their use-by date into mixing vats as material for making chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, and other products. When the undercover reporter questioned the appropriateness of this practice, the reply was, “Even if it’s expired, eating it won’t kill anybody.” The main impact of the report came from showing the extent to which food safety practices were ignored—in one instance, beef that was over seven months beyond its expiry date and had gone moldy was processed, stamped with a new shelf life of one year, and shipped to customers.

Though there have been some improvements in China’s food safety, relabeling and processing expired meat products is still a common practice, as the Husi Food scandal illustrates.

Police Cite 32,000 Violations

China’s Ministry of Public Security in 2013 kicked off a campaign to improve food safety by tightening enforcement of regulations and cracking down on violators. The police uncovered shocking abuses, including the sale of meat from diseased livestock and addition of toxic chemicals to baby formula. During the first year of the campaign, over 32,000 violations were uncovered, leading to numerous arrests.

As food safety scandals have persisted, discontent among the general public has continued to build toward government leaders seen as corrupt and complacent. The central government, unable to ignore mounting public pressure, has ordered local governments to ratchet up enforcement of food safety regulations and implemented measures creating systems for whistle-blowers and strengthening inspections of facilities. Among these efforts was a statement issued on July 10 by China’s Food and Drug Administration ordering authorities nationwide to implement newly established regulations targeting grievous safety abuses in the food and drug industries. This marked the start of a full-scale campaign by the central government to address the grave state of food safety in China.

The uncovering of the Husi Food scandal can be seen in part as resulting from these efforts. Unlike the free press in Japan and Western countries, Chinese media organs are restricted in the scope of reporting they can carry out, and stories must clear the government’s propaganda department before being run.

Addressing Concerns Prior to the APEC Summit

The current scandal further damages China’s food safety reputation, which was already in decline internationally due to a recent incident in the United States and Canada of pets dying after consuming Chinese-made dog food tainted with toxic levels of melamine. Within Japan as well, the episode involving Husi Food has served to exacerbate the mistrust caused by earlier scandals, such as one involving poisoned frozen dumplings from China. As such incidents have failed to abate, the authorities in Beijing have had to take solid steps to improve the country’s food safety image overseas.

China is gearing up to welcome world leaders at this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which is to be held in Beijing in November. As the host nation, China is looking to clean up its image and show the international community that it has taken decisive measures to ensure the safety of its food supplies. But the root cause of the tainted-food scandals is the culture of rampant greed and corruption that plagues the country. And a cure for these ills is nowhere near in sight.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 25, 2014. Title photo: A notice at a McDonald’s restaurant in China apologizes to customers for the unavailability of some menu items due to a scandal involving expired meat. Photo © Jiji Press.)

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