Shark fin on ‘premium’ menu at popular Hong Kong chain Maxim’s despite pledge
Maxim’s claimed in 2017 to be the first Chinese restaurant chain to phase out shark fin, but still has a hidden menu called ‘The Premium’ selling the controversial product. WildAid activists accuse the company of misleading the public, but the chain claims the hidden menus don’t count
When the two women guests at the reception desk of Maxim’s Palace say they want to order shark fin, the black suited employee bends down and pulls out a menu from beneath the counter that is strikingly different from the ones on the tables.
Grandly titled “The Premium”, the special menu kept discretely out of sight includes superior shark fin soup with chicken, ham, and vegetable in casserole for HK$780 a pot, and stir-fried shark fin with bean sprouts, crabmeat and egg for HK$680 a portion.
“Can we order abalone, bird’s nest, shark fin as separate items, rather than as part of a meal?” the women ask at the restaurant in the Shun Tak Centre in Sheung Wan. “Yes, they can be ordered as separate items,” the employee tells them.
When the pair say they do not feel the set meal offered by Maxim’s will be suitable for the party they want to bring to the restaurant, the employee replies: “No problem. We can tailor a meal for you according to your request and budget.”
It seems a straightforward enough encounter and the requests would have barely raised an eyebrow in Hong Kong only a decade ago. Today, however, as environmental awareness continues to rise, the menu is a battleground for one of the territory’s biggest and most influential restaurant chains, and the activists campaigning to have shark fin taken off its menus.
The women are undercover investigators for the wildlife conservation charity WildAid, who secretly recorded visits to Maxim’s outlets across Hong Kong after the chain claimed last year to be the first Chinese restaurant chain to have completely phased out shark fin dishes from its à la carte menus by the end of 2017 – after which it was only available by special request.
The existence of the separate menus from which shark fin dishes can apparently be ordered individually suggests Maxim’s concession to conservation may not be as straightforward as it seems.
Through its investigation, WildAid claims to have evidence of shark fin being offered on what it described as “secret” à la carte menus kept out of sight and produced on request in eight Maxim’s restaurants across Hong Kong.
Maxim’s denies any claims of secrecy surrounding the menus.
WildAid accuses the chain of “deceiving the Hong Kong public into believing it has completely phased out shark fin” while pandering to the continuing profitable demand for the dish.
The charity’s Hong Kong wildlife campaigner Alex Hofford argues: “To save sharks and the marine environment, Maxim’s ought to stop misleading the Hong Kong public by immediately removing all shark fin from all of its menus.
“This cruel, outdated and unsustainable practice has been going on for far too long, and if Maxim’s are serious about showing leadership in environmental protection, they could just stop selling this brutal dish today. It really is that simple.”
WildAid says the branding of the under-the-counter menus as “The Premium” indicates a coordinated marketing effort by Maxim’s to promote shark fin at a time when it was publicly claiming to be phasing the dish out.
One of the under-the-counter menus obtained by the activists offered a “Special Dish for Chiuchow Garden” featuring double boiled shark fin soup with Yunnan ham for HK$1,800, Hofford points out.
The restaurants offering the shark fin menus include three branches of Chiuchow Garden in Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Tsim Sha Tsui, Hoi Yat Heen in the Harbour Plaza Hotel in Whampoa Garden, Jade Garden in Sha Tin, two branches of Maxim’s Palace in Sha Tin and Sheung Wan, and Symphony by Jade in Tsim Sha Tsui, WildAid says.
The group says its evidence suggests the practice may be in place across the chain’s more than 50 Hong Kong outlets.
Hofford says: “WildAid hopes that Maxim’s can show its sincerity toward preserving the marine environment by completely removing all shark fin from all of its menus immediately.”
WildAid has also sent a letter to Starbucks asking it to put pressure on Maxim’s to halt shark fin sales. Maxim’s is the Starbucks licensee in Hong Kong.
Maxim’s Group public relations manager Lily Lau did not reply directly to repeated email questions and requests for an interview from the South China Morning Post, instead referring the matter to an external public relations company.
In a written statement released through Joyous Communications, Maxim’s repeats its assertion that it had removed shark fin from all of its à la carte menus by the end of last year. In a telephone call, a representative of Joyous Communications suggests the under-the-counter menus could not be taken into account as they are not openly available and are not the “main menus”.
The statement says: “Maxim’s Chinese Cuisine has paid extra effort to promote shark-free alternatives and reduce fin consumption voluntarily. There is nothing secretive involved, and we have communicated with the respective NGO on the misleading information.”
It adds: “At Maxim’s, we respect customers’ needs and preferences, while adopting a sustainable sourcing strategy. Through our continuous efforts in promoting shark-free menus since 2010, there has been significant result in reducing fin consumption by 70 per cent over the past seven years. A more significant drop of 25 per cent in consumption was observed in 2016 and 2017. We foresee the reduction trend will continue.”
Maxim’s was one of the first Chinese restaurant chains to participate in an alternative shark-free menu programme and to provide “ocean-friendly” menus, the statement points out.
This year, it is continuing to designate new shark-free restaurants and is working with the Hong Kong Federation of Business Students and NGOs to promote shark-free menus and alternatives to shark fin, the statement says.
Although Lau did not respond directly to the Post’s enquiries, she sent an email to WildAid’s Hofford calling the allegations misleading and saying: “Hopefully, our continuous efforts in reducing fin consumption will be respected.
“We have continuously made and are still making tremendous efforts and effective measures over the past seven years to reduce fin consumption,” she wrote in the email, seen by the Post. “One of the measures is to phase out shark fin dishes in our à la carte menus. Nevertheless, shark fin dishes will only be provided upon customers’ requests.”
Tracy Tsang Chui-chi, senior programme officer for ocean sustainability with WWF Hong Kong, says she cannot comment directly on WildAid’s investigation into Maxim’s shark fin menus, but urges the company to respond by imposing a blanket ban on the dish.
“One quarter of sharks and related species are threatened with extinction. WWF Hong Kong urges Maxim’s and all Chinese restaurants to ban shark fin, either on banquet menu or on à la carte menus,” she says.
Tsang says opposition to shark fin among Hong Kong people has rocketed over the past decade as awareness of the issue has spread. “According to a consumption survey released in 2015, 70 per cent of respondents have stopped or reduced eating shark fin in the past five years,” she says.
The trend had seen restaurants across Hong Kong phase out shark fin in recent years and 92 per cent of people questioned in the 2015 survey said they were happy to accept a banquet with no shark fin.
The amount of shark fin imported and consumed in Hong Kong had dropped by more than a fifth between 2007 and 2017, Tsang says, and major shipping companies and airlines have also established no shark carriage policies.
The focus in the battle to stop the shark fin trade has now shifted from the boardroom to the dining table. We hope caterers will support the no shark fin trend by banning shark fin altogether,” says Tsang. “Since people usually eat shark fin in restaurants, caterers have a key role to play in shark conservation.”
One of the arguments put forward by Maxim’s for continuing to sell shark fin is that it employs a sustainable sourcing strategy, obtaining fins from what the chain argues are less threatened blue sharks. It has pledged to “closely monitor new environment factors and review our strategies responsibly”.
However, that stand has been challenged in an open letter to Maxim’s CEO Michael Wu Wai-kuo, signed by 276 global scientists, dignitaries, and conservation groups which asserts that Maxim’s has failed to act on the latest international consensus.
The letter sent in February 2018 points out that blue sharks were added to Appendix II of the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species in October last year in a move they described as “an important milestone in shark conservation”.
“Your company has stated publicly that it serves blue shark which you maintain is ‘lower risk’. However, your company is ignoring the wealth of scientific evidence that indicates the contrary,” says the letter, whose signatories include United Nations Messenger of Peace Dr Jane Goodall, Virgin boss Richard Branson, and University of Hong Kong marine expert Professor Yvonne Sadovy.
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“Around 100 million sharks are unsustainably slaughtered each year, with around 73 million sharks targeted solely for their fins. The practise of shark finning is not only unsustainable, it is cruel and inhumane. Sharks have their fins hacked off while still alive and are then thrown back into the sea still living. Finned sharks then either starve to death, are eaten alive by other fish, or drown.”
The letter says the chain is swimming against the anti shark fin tide in Hong Kong. “Maxim’s has ignored repeated requests from the public to show the same environmental leadership as the central government authorities, the Hong Kong government, the logistics sector and the 206 companies who have taken the WWF Hong Kong “No Shark Fin’ corporate pledge,” it says.