Hong Kong must impose checks on its pre-cooked meat imports

Albert Cheng says even the most radical lawmakers would not dare to filibuster legislation on pre-cooked meat in light of the Husi scandal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 August, 2014, 1:45am

Last year, Forbes named McDonald's the seventh most powerful brand in the world. The brand value of the golden arches was estimated at a staggering HK$290 billion. One would have thought its executives would guard the company's business reputation like their own lives. This, however, is hardly the case for McDonald's operation in Hong Kong.

In the span of less than two weeks, local consumer confidence in the giant fast food chain has plummeted. McDonald's Hong Kong is now synonymous with a total public relations failure.

McDonald's has been implicated in an international food safety scare, as it was caught selling meat imported from Shanghai Husi Food Company , which an exposé revealed had repackaged out-of-date meat. After the exposé, McDonald's in Japan and mainland China reacted swiftly by acknowledging Husi was a supplier and severing commercial dealings with the company.

They have positioned themselves as innocent victims of yet another food safety scandal in China. After all, malpractices in the mainland food industry are well documented.

Shanghai Husi is a subsidiary of US-based OSI Group. Sheldon Lavin, the chairman and chief executive of OSI, told the press the group's headquarters in Illinois had no idea about what was going on in the Shanghai factory.

As The New York Times put it in its leader on July 24, "Anything goes in China's food system". The newspaper recalled: "Since April 2013, more than 155 people have died from a strain of avian influenza, a disease linked to poor sanitary conditions in poultry markets. Last year, officials found high levels of cadmium, which has been linked to organ failure and cancer, in rice at markets and restaurants in Guangdong province. And, earlier this year, Walmart stores in China recalled packages of donkey meat that contained meat from other animals."

The Husi shambles follows hard on the heels of a long list of meat-related public health crises originating from China. These reported cases of malpractice in the Chinese food sector are only the tip of the iceberg.

Thus, people would have sympathised with McDonald's if it had been straight when it told its side of the story.

Instead, McDonald's Hong Kong opted to take its chances when it was questioned by the Centre for Food Safety and the media. It initially came up with a written statement claiming that it had not used any supplies from Husi.

That turned out to be a lie. The Centre for Food Safety has ascertained that Hongkongers may have consumed 380 tonnes of Husi meat at local McDonald's outlets since last year. The company later ate its words and admitted it had indeed imported a large quantity of foodstuffs from the problematic supplier.

McDonald's Hong Kong then sought to play down the blunder as a mere miscommunication. It even tried to accuse the Centre for Food Safety of violating a gentleman's agreement by hosting a press conference before an agreed discussion between the two sides.

In fact, Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man has been criticised for not acting quickly enough against McDonald's.

McDonald's managing director in Hong Kong, Randy Lai Wai-sze, made a half-hearted public apology six days after the onset of the crisis, but refused to take any questions from the media after her stand-up briefing. The fast food giant's arrogance so far is beyond belief.

The website of McDonald's Hong Kong quotes founder Ray Kroc as having said, "We take the hamburger business more seriously than anyone else." It then goes on to pledge, "At McDonald's Hong Kong, we don't just live by our founder's values. We are also passionate about exceeding them."

The way the company is handling the problem with its hamburgers does not indicate any passion for excellence.

Its management's uncaring attitude only amplifies the public outcry for more stringent control over food imports. The McDonald's fiasco has fuelled public worries over the quality of food served in our restaurants. In particular, the latest incident has exposed the reality that, unlike raw meat, no permit is required to import pre-cooked meat into Hong Kong.

The tally of patients suffering from intestinal cancer is rising steadily, and the disease is now one of the deadliest forms of cancer in Hong Kong. No one knows how many of these cases are related to the use of dirty or rotten food, pre-cooked or otherwise, from dubious sources in mainland China.

The public health regulators should use the current wave of discontent with McDonald's to push through legislation to plug the loophole over imported pre-cooked meat. This is an initiative that even the most radical lawmakers will not dare to filibuster.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk