China’s weak regulation to blame for fast-food safety scandals

Meat suppliers to a number of popular foreign fast food brands are once again suffering reputational crises due to poor quality products

The quality of ‘foreign fast food’ is back in the spotlight in China after reports that a two-month undercover investigation had found a supplier to McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut — Shanghai Fuxi Foods — using large quantities of out-of-date meat.

The reporter saw discoloured and rancid meat, eight months past its use-by-date, repackaged with a new date, one year in the future. Eighteen tonnes of chicken skin and breast meat, two weeks out of date, was used to make Chicken McNuggets, the investigation found.

However, what has sparked most anger is that products using out-of-date ingredients were deliberately sent to the Chinese market. To cover up the true manufacturing dates, the company designated specific staff members to maintain a parallel sets of records.  

According to the report, Shanghai Fuxi Foods added meat that had been on the factory floor, out-of-date and sub-standard products, including hamburgers of unknown provenance, to their production line. With supervision entirely ineffective, frozen rancid meat became “steak.”

These second-rate products, produced with out-of-date ingredients and stamped with new dates, were then sold to almost all the foreign fast food chains, including McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. When the reporter questioned this a staff member told him that “it won’t kill anyone.”

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This isn’t the first food scandal to hit foreign chains in China. In March 2005, small quantities of toxic colorant Sudan Red were found in KFC’s New Orleans chicken wings and chicken burgers; in November that year KFC was accused of using potentially dangerous star gooseberry in a drink; in August 2011 Japanese noodle chain Ajisen Ramen admitted using additives. Of those 17 incidents, 6 were due to unreliable suppliers.

A Global Times commentary said the brands and the operating environment in China were to blame.

“International brands are not entirely focused on serving the Chinese consumer, and are not as cautious as they are in Western markets. They probably think that the Chinese market is a bit less refined and they can drop their game a bit and still lead. So some of them provide not the best service, but a ‘suitable value’ service,” the newspaper said.

The commentary went on to say that corruption is widespread in China, regulation weak and media supervision intermittent, while the public blindly prefer foreign brands. This all affects the way foreign firms operate, reducing service quality in China, it added.