Has the McDonald’s/ Yum Brands “rotten meat” food quality and safety scandal really scared the Chinese away from Western fast food?
A survey came out in the wake of the Shanghai Husi rotten meat scandal which said that 69% of Chinese vowed to never eat at Western fast food chains ever again. But what is the situation really like on the ground? Is this all empty words from a betrayed public that will wear off when the anger and fear subsides or could this food scandal really have a lasting impact on the position of Western fast food in China?
“Are you scared of eating McDonald’s food?” I asked a young guy in a McDonald’s in Shanghai’s Hongqiao district.
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m just here for the air conditioning, I won’t eat the food anymore.”
We talked about the food contamination scandal, where a big McDonald’s supplier in Shanghai had apparently shipped out expired and otherwise unsuitable food to restaurants all around the country, and confirmed that this was the reason he did not get a meal with his cool air.
“Are those people also scared of McDonald’s food?” I asked while pointing at the people who were up at the counter, buying up whatever McDonald’s had available on the menu.
“Yes, I think they are scared. I think everybody is scared.”
“Then why are they buying food?”
“I don’t know, maybe they don’t care. Most of the people here are young students. Maybe they don’t know it is bad. There are a lot fewer people here today. Very few,” he added.
It was true, where there are usually people lined up five or six deep during breakfast and lunch time there was never even the slightest semblance of a queue. People were walking in and going straight up to the counter unimpeded. This has been the scene throughout China over the past week.
The Dragon TV report that appeared to show expired and moldy meat being repackaged and shipped out to Western fast food restaurants across China immediately destroyed the public image of the industry. An East vs. West showdown was created, as some blamed western fast food for not keeping their supply chain under wraps and McDonald’s, KFC, et al claiming that they were deceived by their Chinese supplier. Though owned by an American company, Shanghai Husi was a very Chinese operation. It had Chinese workers, Chinese management, and turned out that it may have been run in a very stereotypical “Chinese” way. The Western fast food chains were not slow to point out this fact, but it has been reported that the Chinese are not buying it. In the above mentioned survey, 77% of respondents stated that they feel that the Western brands had knowledge that they were passing on a less than savory product.
People here in China once viewed international fast food as a refuge from a Chinese food supply chain that had garnered a large amount of distrust resulting from a continual sequence of food contamination scandals. I’ve been told multiple times by Chinese people that they eat so much KFC and McDonald’s because they think the food is safer. Whether explicit or implicit, there was a feeling here that these international brands were more worthy of trust than the average Chinese company. They made people feel more secure as it was implied that because these chains were international a more rigorous standard of quality control went into the production of their food.
This illusion has now been shattered. While the reports don’t show that Chinese brand foods are any better than the foreign, they do show that the foreign brands can be just as bad as the Chinese. Western fast food has been knocked off its pedestal of superiority. The Chinese will still eat at international fast food chains — they haven’t necessarily been shown to be any worse than domestic brands — but they will probably no longer be seen as an alternative to the dubious Chinese food supply chain.
“Do you think Chinese people will keep eating Western fast food?” I asked the meal-less guy enjoying the air conditioning.
“Yes,” he answered quickly, “they are very cheap and convenient. People will keep coming here.”
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