Business, Finance & Economics

A meat scandal in China has customers asking just how safe is Western fast food?

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Credit: Reuters / Stringer

Shanghai Husi Food - a major supplier to many foreign fast-food chains in China, including McDonald's and KFC has been accused of using tainted meat.

Corruption in China is so pervasive these days, even the Happy Meal hasn't been spared.

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New evidence surfaced in recent weeks showing a Chinese food company cutting corners on meat safety. The company — Shanghai Husi Food — is a major supplier for many foreign fast-food chains in China, including McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.

And Chinese media filmed workers at the factory appearing to repackage expired meat — even scooping it off the floor — before shipping it off to some big-name American chains in China. McDonald's has responded by taking most meat off its menu.

Reporter Ruth Morris spoke to customers at the upscale Jing'an shopping center in Shanghai Tuesday. She saw lots of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and french fries, as well as a notice at the cash register apologizing for the restaurant's limited offerings.

She also met Rita, an expat from Korea at McDonald's with her 5-year-old daughter. Rita didn't want to use her last name.

"I wanted to order a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger for her, but I couldn't because they said they don't have [any]. So I had to order fish burger…  and chicken burger for me," Rita said.

The beef shortage is a result of last week's investigative news report by Shanghai-based Dragon TV. It accused a Shanghai company of repackaging expired meat and shipping it off to fast food chains like McDonald's and KFC in China. Restaurants stopped using the meat, and the supplier's American parent company, OSI Group, withdrew all products made at the Shanghai unit from the market.

McDonald's customers like Rita say they'd like to believe that multinational companies, with major brands to protect, will go the extra mile to make sure the food they serve is safe. She says if she's in a foreign country and not sure whether local food might make her daughter sick, she'll head to McDonald's.

Morris also talked with Engineer Yu Dong Ming who was finishing off his Filet-O-Fish. He said McDonald's has done a good job responding to the food safety concerns by taking the suspicious beef off the menu. In fact, some Chinese customers say they have more trust in American fast-food restaurants than Chinese ones.

But Yu thinks US-based OSI has some explaining to do.

OSI chief Sheldon Lavin traveled to Shanghai to apologize for the tainted meat in a Monday press conference. His tone was contrite.

"We know that we have let down our customers, the government and the people of China," he said. "And we understand that we need to rebuild and again earn respect, trust, reputation and forgiveness."

But some consumers are not in a forgiving mood.

Outside one McDonald's restaurant, Morris met Huang Yao waiting to be seated at a much busier dumpling restaurant next door.  Huang Yao said she has decided not to eat at McDonald's in China ever again, adding that she would trust McDonald's if she were traveling abroad.

Seated nearby was a Spanish sales manager who worked for a trading company that ships Chinese goods to Spain.

He said he felt the cards were stacked against foreign companies in China — with state-run media playing up foreign company's missteps, while playing down wider food safety concerns — like the thousands of dead pigs found floating in a Chinese river last year.

McDonald's in China says it may take until early August or even longer to get beef back in their hamburger buns.

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