Photo: BilabialBoxing on flickr
You might have heard that a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Shanxi Province was recently closed due to chlorine contamination. I have to admit I glossed over the story at first, seeing as how the shutdown was temporary and levels of chlorine are, according to Coke, well within statutory limits.Here’s what Coke had to say:
Coca-Cola said in a statement Monday that the chlorine levels were the result pipeline modifications that were made on Feb. 3 as part of the plant’s water conservation plans. An operational error caused the water typically used for rinsing packages to mistakenly mix with the water used for making drinks.
Just another product quality problem in China, and since no one was hurt, not something to dwell on. Right?
Fast forward a few days, and I start hearing talk online about how consumers should be careful about Coca-Cola products. (Full disclosure: when I say that “I” heard this, I mean my wife, and when I say “online,” I mean food shopping web sites.) The comments I read did not specifically reference what happened in Shanxi, and while it’s possible that more than one issue involving Coke is rattling around Chinese Intertubes, I have a feeling that the chlorine caper was the origin of these cautionary messages.
This is a PR problem for Coca-Cola, albeit a minor one. The piping glitch is being sorted out, and the company is working with the local authorities, who did seize some products, to resolve the underlying issues.
So why is anyone grumbling at all? What’s the worry here? I suspect this is yet another example of what happens when product quality scandals are commonplace. When no one trusts the products, the quality standards, the companies, or the local regulators, then any problem, even a minor one, is worthy of scepticism and fear.
That being said, one can always count on online rumours and sensationalist media outlets to capitalise on stories that would normally be fairly mundane. As usual, Global Times is on the beat:
In spite of its apologies, Coca-Cola has left the public with a negative impression because it has refused to recall its problematic drinks and insisted that its drinks are safe. The relevant departments in Shanxi should not send the signal to Coca-Cola that it can break China’s food safety laws. Coca-Cola has repeatedly emphasised that the chlorine levels are well below China’s standards for drinking water. But “meeting the standards” does not necessarily mean being safe to drink.
Yes, the quote is rather silly, and the rest of the Op/Ed, which calls for a Coca-Cola boycott for reasons that escape me, is inane. But there is something worthy of attention here that I’d like to point out. In the above quote, note that it’s not just Coke that is being criticised, but the Shanxi local officials and China’s national food safety standards themselves. Sounds like an indictment of the entire system.
I believe that this type of broad criticism, which is certainly easy to make these days, resonates quite well with consumers. Given the never-ending parade of food scandals, why should people trust what Coke says, or the Shanxi officials, or even standards-writing bodies at the national level?
This is all about confidence, and although the Central Government has indeed responded to many of the product quality scandals with new standards, stepped-up enforcement efforts, and numerous criminal penalties and fines (of individuals as well as companies), it is going to take a long time before the public once again has faith in the system.
Until we get back to “normal,” companies like Coke will have to redouble their efforts to avoid even the hint of quality problems.
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