Chinese subsidiaries of international fast food brands, most notably KFC and McDonalds, face a scandal as a major supplier of meat products, Shanghai Husi, (owned by OSI Group, an Illinois based food products conglomerate)  has been discovered to have been changing dates and reprocessing old chicken and other meat products. This is exactly the kind of practice that Chinese consumers have become more aware of, and more wary of, in recent years, due to yearly major scandals involving foot suppliers. A scandal involving street side kebabs labeled as lamb actually being rat or fox meat was the source of much consternation a year ago, and five years ago it was rumored that some of the ubiquitous steamed buns, known as baozi 包子, sold on the street were filled with a combination of lard, seasoning, and cardboard, labeled as pork. The accuracy of this rumor was later disputed by the existing food safety authorities, but the damage was done, and these buns are still jokingly referred to as cardboard.


There is a reason that recent food scandals are getting national traction more than more local violations. In China, fast food outlets, like McDonalds or KFC, are higher-end, middle to upper class places. Skyrocketing growth of the Chinese middle class Growing profits for Western food outlets have closely tracked the. For this reason, more globally-minded and educated Chinese citizens are comparing their own food safety system to that in other countries, and the comparison is not favorable. In the United States the system of strict labeling requirements and a rigorous regime of food safety inspectors still occasionally fails, but in general US citizens trust what we are eating. There are cases of food poisoning, poor handling, or e coli outbreaks, but they are limited and swiftly identified.


Moving forward, one can only hope that scandals like this one will improve the Chinese system, as similar events promoted the formation of the Food and Drug Administration in the USA. Prior to the formation of the FDA, industrially produced food was also very suspect, as illustrated by Upton Sinclair’s classic The Jungle. After public awareness grew, and a few scandals involving deadly vaccines, the FDA was formed and has grown in expertise and effectiveness since then. The same chain of events is currently happening in China, as authorities are cracking down and issuing independent audits across the country, while many McDonald’s outlets are only selling drinks and fries.

Of all the issues facing citizens in China, including political corruption, economic opportunity, and pollution, food safety is the most intimate. One can get out of a polluted city, or avoid work that requires a lot of political networking. But it is impossible to not eat, and impossible, unless wealthy and living in one of the major cities, to live on imported foods exclusively. For this reason, and the health of the Chinese people, food scandals are disheartening and disquieting, but will probably lead to greater safety in the future.