Consumers chew on food producers flaws

Updated: 2011-08-31 07:53

By He Bolin (China Daily)

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Food-safety rumors have a butterfly effect in China's cyberspace, and when it comes to international fast food giants in recent days, the effect seems to be magnified.

Both KFC and McDonald's, probably the most famous international fast food brands in China, have been involved in a number of food quality scandals exposed by netizens recently.

KFC's TV commercial says its soy milk is "made in the ancient way". However, in response to netizens' claims that this was untrue, KFC admitted that its product is made from soybean powder, while stressing the powder's Chinese producers follow KFC's special recipe and thus can make sure the milk tastes similar to milk from freshly ground soybeans.

KFC is not alone, a picture of a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing with burger buns, some even in ripped wrappings, piled up outside, was posted online on mop.com on Aug 1 and soon reposted hundreds of thousands of times.

McDonald's later said that it had punished the restaurant and the buns would not be used.

Thanks to the mighty power of micro blogs, the international giants have to respond to public concerns about their products in a speedy and prudent manner. The misconduct and misleading or ambiguous ads by foreign fast food eateries go against Chinese consumers' high expectations for the quality and safety of their products, and doubts and misgivings cannot be dispelled overnight.

Chinese consumers are far from being treated as royalty. Rather, they feel helpless as sometimes they don't even have alternatives. Take a look at KFC's and McDonald's restaurants after the scandals, there are still crowds. The logic behind this is simple, but also cruel and stunning, as a netizen named Banyuanjun said: Even KFC's four-day change of cooking oil is better than the oil used for fried dough sticks, a traditional Chinese breakfast available at many restaurants, that is assumed to be cooked in oil used at some outlets repeatedly for many days, let alone the revolting measure by some unscrupulous restaurant operators to dredge and recycle oleic materials from sewers and drains for their cooking oil.

So the core problem lies in the supervisory system over all producers, regardless of whether they are domestic or foreign. Only when based on fundamental sanitary and health standards, can competition offer better, healthier foods and more choices to consumers. Without strict and frequent inspections, competition will only lead to the vicious price battles that result in inferior goods and the use of harmful chemicals to replace normal ingredients.

But it is not just inspections that need to be strengthened. Given that action by the authorities is always taken after food scandals break, people have the right to ask what have those supervisory authorities been doing in the meantime?

A punitive mechanism against inaction and malpractices by relevant authorities also needs to be established, given the fact that food safety scandals have been breaking out one after another in recent years.

The use of substandard ingredients is still rampant in China's food industry, underlining the fact that many bosses in the industry fail to abide by basic business principles and are willing to break the law to make a profit.

In dealing with this, it may be effective to establish nationwide-linked archives as a precondition of market access to the food industry.

The author is a writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 08/31/2011 page8)