Now The Chinese May Be Taking Food Safety rumours Too Seriously

coke great wall of china

Photo: Flickr

When you hear of bona fide food safety problems every day, you tend to jump on every rumour out there. I’m just as guilty of this as the next guy. On the other hand, I think that Coca-Cola was put in a tough spot here:Beverage samples supplied by Coca-Cola Shanxi Beverages Co., Ltd. have been found to be free of chlorine after being analysed following an allegation of contamination by one of the company’s employees, authorities in Shanxi Province said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, an anonymous employee of the company told local media that nine batches of beverage products had been contaminated with chlorine during a routine pipe maintenance procedure.

The report was disseminated online, leading some retailers to refuse to purchase products from the company. The company responded by denying the claim, stating that it would ensure its rights in accordance with the law.

So a disgruntled employee makes a complaint (an extraordinarily common occurrence), the government feels compelled to act, and the story gets reported by the media. If I’m Coca-Cola, I’d be quite upset. However, I’m not sure how to alter this dynamic. Although we can criticise the employee, we certainly don’t want to limit the ability of real whistleblowers from filing complaints.

With respect to the media, we also do not want to limit their ability to report on these kinds of stories, particularly when they relate to public safety.

Of course, I can’t say that I’m all that happy with the editorial decisions taken by certain organisations to run with a story like this. I suppose it’s news when the government tests a product that has been alleged to contain unsafe ingredients, but I would guess that this kind of thing happens all the time.

What should be the standard for such reports? Is the allegation sufficient? The government testing? Reported results?

The second “food safety” issue, which actually began in the U.S., not China, involves Starbucks:

US cafe chain Starbucks’ Chinese subsidiary Sunday admitted they have used cochineal, a bug-based red dye, in a few food products in their cafes in China.

Starbucks China also said that they had not sold any beverage containing cochineal in China, and a new strawberry and soy milk frappuccino they are going to launch will use a red colorant that meets the Chinese food safety standard, Beijing Evening News reported Sunday.

The announcement came after 7,500 American consumer rights activists forced the NASDAQ-listed company to stop using cochineal, or carmine, a red dye made from the dried bodies of female cochineal insects, in its strawberry-flavored drinks in the US last week.

The news was soon picked up by the Chinese media, at a time when food and drug safety issues are racking people’s nerves.

I’m more annoyed with the original U.S. activists than the decision by Chinese media to run the story. Starbucks had already changed their policy in the U.S. over this, so trying to find out what they were doing in another market is certainly fair game.

That being said, sensationalizing the “crushed bugs” aspect of this is not exactly top shelf journalism. Apparently one of the reasons Starbucks (and other companies) use this dye is that some synthetic red dyes have been linked to cancer. Moreover, how many things do we eat or drink that include animal extracts of which we are unaware? The “creepy factor” here is wholly irrational, but it makes for good web traffic and attention.

Each of these “scandals” leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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