The latest food safety scare in China involves the ubiquitous foreign fast-food chain KFC. China’s social media bubbled with reports in late 2012 that KFC used broiler chicken that went from hatchery to kitchen in only 45 days, KFC was investigated by domestic media and subject to inspections by the Shanghai Food Safety Authority.
The authority announced on December 24, 2012 that the level of antibiotics and steroids was within official limits after reviewing the chicken used at KFC locations throughout China, however, one of the eight samples tested contained amantadine, a drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease which is banned for use in food.
This crisis of confidence and resulting government probe caused KFC’s parent Yum! Brands Inc. to take a noticeable hit in its fourth-quarter profits. Yum! Brands, which also owns fast-food chains Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, says it has since stopped purchasing chicken from problematic suppliers.
KFC Speaks to the micro-blogging masses, who hiss back
To mediate the resultant bad publicity, Yum! Brands turned to Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging platform, on January 10, 2013 to apologize to Chinese customers for its handling of the recent food scare. Yum! posting an open letter of apology from J. Samuel Su, chairman and chief executive of Yum! China, which was retweeted over 1,700 times and received over 900 comments.
In Su’s letter, he promises consumers that Yum! will improve the methods it uses to test its products, improve communication with authorities, raise the bar for suppliers, and (perhaps less comforting) help suppliers develop “advanced cultivation methods” for chickens. Although the letter itself remains viewable on KFC China’s official Weibo account, a search for the title of the message — “An Open Letter to Our Many Customers” is blocked due to “relevant rules and regulations.”
If the kerfuffle has touched a nerve with consumers and authorities, perhaps it’s because Yum! has 5,100 restaurants on the Chinese mainland. In fact, China is the U.S.-based company’s largest market, and Yum! declares on its website that it “consider[s] China to be the greatest restaurant opportunity of the 21st century.”
If the online response to Su’s letter is any evidence of the company’s near-term future in China, things do not look good. Users commenting on the letter overwhelmingly criticized Yum! or KFC, many pausing to note that over two weeks had passed between the time that authorities announced finding amantadine and Yum!’s online apology. KFC issued online statements in the interim that fell short of an apology.
Many netizens simply didn’t accept Mr. Su’s apology, and fell in line to bid farewell to the chain, demanding it “get out of China.” . @超级加菲喵 wrote, “Another apology is useless, do not eat!” @IanTree made sure to show where her loyalties lie, commenting “You give your apology, but I won’t return there to eat.”
The larger blowback
One could be forgiven for thinking that KFC’s blunder would benefit its fast-food competitors. Instead, the incident prompted some Web users to speak out against foreign-owned restaurant chains in general. Much discussion revolved around the fear of allowing children to consume fast-food items. User @别一起堕落 reminded others to “think about the kids who like to eat there; what a sin!” @Miss_茉茉 wrote hyperbolically, “Eating KFC will cause our children’s future offspring to be deformed. Absolutely do not eat it.”
The outcry against fast food, and foreign chains in particular, was loud enough that McDonald’s felt compelled to issue a statement averring its compliance with food safety standards. Some Web users are nonetheless urging others to avoid eating fast-food altogether. User @oO心o儿Oo tweeted that he will “never again eat at KFC or McDonald’s.” @米兰城的小铁匠 went after the foreign restaurant chains using humor: “I’ve been saying all along that to me, KFC, McDonald’s, etc are just good places to find a clean bathroom when I’m out walking around.” @AllenTau‘s comment, while apocryphal, is surely the kind of reaction that keeps American businesspeople in China awake at night: “I reject this apology! The U.S. developed [genetic modification] and now is trying to dump them in China, Although China has all sorts of domestic problems, the U.S. makes them worse!”
Many commenters looked beyond KFC and even its Western counterparts altogether, decrying a larger trend of big businesses protecting their presence in the Chinese market without regard for consumers’ health. @大变与小变 commented that businesses are “losing their humanity in order to make a bit of money.” User @吉哆啦寿司宝体店 wondered, “Do these business owners not know the truth?” Are they not parents themselves? Would they let their children eat this bad chicken? Is money the only important thing to them? Chinese children are being harmed.”
To many users, the KFC incident is one in a string of food scandals in China, where fast-food suppliers often cut corners to meet the demands of the world’s largest market. @samman来了 demonstrated the sense of resignation that will keep customers wary, even if it keeps them coming back: “Foreign fast food is all this way, [but] domestically it’s even worse.”