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Fast-Food Scandal Revives China's Food Safety Anxieties

A U.S. company that supplies meat to some of the world's largest fast-food chains in China has pulled all its products made by a Chinese subsidiary, after reports that it was selling expired products.

The food safety scandal that erupted in China in the last week has also spread overseas, affecting chain restaurants in Japan and Hong Kong, and prompted calls for tighter food safety regulation in China.

The privately held OSI is headquartered in Aurora, Ill., and claims 50 manufacturing facilities worldwide. Its Chinese subsidiary, Shanghai Husi Food Co., Ltd., sells beef patties, chicken nuggets and, according to its website, cooked frozen snail meat. Its customers in China include McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Starbucks.

An expose that aired July 20 on Shanghai television used a hidden camera to show workers picking meat off the floor and returning it to the production line, and handling meat with ungloved hands. It also revealed documentation that the firm was falsifying production dates and selling expired beef and chicken to customers.

Following the reports, McDonald's restaurants in Japan have begun to source chicken from Thailand instead of China. Hong Kong McDonald's stopped selling McNuggets and chicken fillets from Husi. And the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that McDonald's outlets in Beijing and Shanghai had run out of both hamburgers and chicken.

"I sincerely apologize to all of our customers in China," OSI's CEO Sheldon Lavin said in a statement. "We will bear the responsibility of these missteps, and will make sure they never happen again."

This latest scandal joins a long list of similar recent incidents in China. These include milk tainted with the industrial additive melamine, "gutter oil" salvaged from drainage ditches and reprocessed into cooking oil, rat meat being sold as lamb, and extensive soil poisoning of agricultural land.

Meanwhile, to the fury of many Chinese taxpayers, their nation's leaders are insulated from such risks, as their food is procured through "special supply" channels, grown on pesticide-free, organic farms, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Still, China's government has moved quickly to address the problem, arresting five people, including the head of Husi, and shut down nearly 600 restaurants. China is currently revising its food safety laws amid calls for stiffer penalties for lawbreakers.

Shanghai-based food safety expert Lin Rongquan says the incident is a good opportunity to push for improved food safety management.

"At first, there was a lot of discussion among consumers, who were shocked that such problems could occur at this kind of company," he says. "But I think consumer confidence will recover quickly, and the incident's impact will not be too great."

Indeed, a weekend meal at a Western fast-food restaurant remains a commonplace and attainable symbol that a Chinese family has reached the middle class. Many Chinese consumers expect quality and hygiene standards at these chains to be a cut above their less-standardized Chinese counterparts.

Critics in China see the larger issue of food safety problems in the same light as pollution and industrial accidents: part of the high cost of blindly pursuing GDP growth, something China's leaders vowed to end more than a decade ago.

China's situation bears some resemblance to what the U.S. went through early in the last century, when shockingly unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry became a target of the progressive movement, including the 1906 novel The Jungle by muckraking journalist and author Upton Sinclair.

China's government appears to be giving state-run media limited leeway to rake some muck of their own on the food safety issue, especially when the scandals occur at foreign-owned enterprises.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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