Why does McDonald's get a pass?

By Gong Wen
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, March 30, 2012
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An exposé of health violations in a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing was the feature event of this year's China Central Television (CCTV) evening party for World Consumer Rights Day, March 15.

The McDonald's outlet located in Beijing's Sanlitun area was found to have sold expired chicken fillets, cheese burgers and pies. The report further revealed that restaurant staff put beef patties that had fallen on the dirty kitchen floor back into the burgers because of cost concerns.

As per usual, these dishonest and unsanitary practices in a food establishment garnered widespread public concern, but this time around, the issue at hand may surprise those who have in the past criticized or even boycotted restaurants with similar types of offenses.

In a poll by Youth Daily, a newspaper targeting a young audience, nearly 15 percent of the participants said they will continue to eat at McDonald's. Some even expressed doubts over the report, with 24 percent saying they trust McDonald's more than CCTV.

To understand the show of support for McDonald's, one has to first understand the power of the brand. As one of the most valuable brands and the biggest fast food chain in the world, McDonald's has long established a reputation of high quality and low cost. The brand has a loyal following in China; fans not only love its food there, they are also fascinated by the company's corporate culture. They account for a considerable part of people supplying the fast food giant in this controversy.

A microblogger wrote on Weibo.com (a Chinese microblogging service similar to Twitter) that, "McDonald's are among the best in terms of sanitation. Quality SOP (standard operating procedure), uniform supply chain, electronic and efficient ordering system, fast and convenient delivery management system, and its marketing and PR, these are all what Chinese businesses should learn."

Indeed, the company's public relations organ was hard at work to demonstrate its capabilities. While most other Chinese companies react to crises by being evasive to public outcry, McDonald's issued an apology on its official microblog about an hour after the CCTV exposé. Within 24 hours, it inspected the branch in question and shut it down.

The transparency and swiftness of McDonald's responses reinforced its image of a responsible and sincere company, which to some degree contributed to restoring trust with consumers.

Of course, these effects also received a boost from the Chinese public's general disappointment about the domestic food industry and their feelings of helplessness in a solution to unsafe foods.

From Melamine-tainted milk powder to poisonous milk; from toxic bean sprouts to poisonous leek; from drug-tainted pork to "gutter cooking oil". Chinese people have witnessed too many food safety violations. For some people, McDonald's troubles in this incident are much less serious than what they have already gone through. In the Youth Daily poll, 20 percent said McDonald's violation was trivial compared to gutter cooking oil and poisonous milk.

In a Global Times report, a McDonald's customer who said he will continue to eat at McDonald's explained his reasoning: "I really like Chinese food, but I know that a lot of food is cooked with gutter cooking oil.

This sentiment was often echoed by microbloggers on Weibo.com. "However bad McDonald's is, it must be better than some Chinese restaurants that got sanitation certificates!" "Please send undercover reporters to all kinds of Chinese restaurants. Six months? Six days would be enough!!!"

In all practical purposes, this incident with McDonald's has become an outlet for the public to express their long-held dissatisfaction, anger and helplessness over the issue of unsafe foods. It is rather ironic that people need to show support for a lesser health violation by a foreign fast food giant to bring attention to more serious domestic offenses in play, especially scandals that highlight the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government health inspections.

However, we should take care not to let apathy settle in as we protest. Although McDonald's health violations seem less serious than other food safety scandals in China, it does not mean that we should ignore and tolerate them. If we choose to blindly forgive McDonald's, we are indulging deception against consumers. Dishonest behaviors and attempts to fool consumers cannot be accepted regardless of whether they are serious or trivial, and they should be punished according to the law.

For McDonald's, the apology was a start. Now it should show how it will fulfill its promise to make every burger clean and safe in order to really earn back the heart of its customers.

Gong Wen is a visiting scholar at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.


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