“Yang” food no longer safe? : Major U.S. food producers are headlining in China’s latest food safety turmoil

August 20, 2014

Chinese food manufactures have been involved in a series of food safety incidents in the past few years, including the Melamine-tainted infant formula case in 2008 and the alleged production of toxic chicken jerky treats that injured or killed thousands of American pets. As a result, people are turning to “Yang” food, a Chinese term for foreign-brand food. Despite much higher prices than their Chinese counterparts, these food products are increasingly welcomed in Chinese families due to their good safety record. But what happened this past month might have changed Chinese people’s idea about “Yang” food.

Since the end of July this year, multiple food safety incidents have draw international attention to products on the market in China. Unlike previous incidents, this time the manufacturers involved are affiliated with major U.S. companies. Our pilot digital surveillance system on monitoring supply chain safety from China to U.S. was able to pick up the earliest report from local Chinese news media on some of these events.

1. OSI Group

As a major meat processor based in Aurora, IL, OSI Group supplies a wide range of meat products globally to large retail and food service industries. Many of its customers are well known to the public, such as McDonald’s, KFC, Papa John’s and Domino’s Pizza.

On July 20, 2014, our pilot system identified a Chinese news article (Figure 1) reporting that Shanghai Husi Food Co Ltd, one of OSI Group’s units in China,  deliberately used expired meat in its manufacturing process. An undercover investigation had been going on for quite a while at Husi Food and the footage of the malpractice was first released at the a local channel in Shanghai on the same day. The article captured by Epidemico’s automated system turns out to be the first article on this event, appearing almost 12 hours earlier than the first English news article that Epidemico could manually locate.

Since the footage was aired, the factory has been shut down and 6 executives were reportedly arrested. McDonald’s and KFC in China have since recalled some of their products that contain meat provided by Husi Food.

2. H.J.Heinz Company

Heinz Co. is famous for their iconic ketchup brand, but in China baby food is the focus of their product line. On August 18, 2014,  the provincial FDA of Zhejiang Province released information on a crackdown on lead tainted infant cereals manufactured by Heinz. The company responded quickly, immediately recalling the products. Epidemico’s pilot food safety monitoring system had already revealed the local FDA’s investigation 5 days before it debuted in mainstream media. On August 13, the system picked up an alert describing Rui An City in Zhejiang Province was following FDA’s instructions and testing Heinz baby cereal in local markets for lead (Figure 2). The URL to the article is no longer accessible for unknown reasons.

Food safety in China has been an ongoing issue. Despite the government’s investment on mitigating the risks along its food supply chain, new issues are emerging which demand deeper analysis of the incidence and source of the problems. Chinese consumers used to believe that products bearing a foreign brand were much safer than domestically manufactured goods, but recent food safety incidents have shaken that belief. As globalization connects multiple countries in a single supply chain, vigilant monitoring of safety practices at multinational food manufacturers is more important than ever.