Years and years ago I used to eat at American fast food chains pretty regularly. And why not? Or so I thought at the time.
Cheap, fast, tasty enough, and easy to deal with in places where English isn’t spoken. But reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation pretty much put an end to that habit. I will sometimes still go for a fast food burger but I try to limit it to once or twice a month. I still visit McDonald’s pretty often, but that’s because when I’m coming home from work and get off the bus near Tai Po Market, McD’s is one place where I can run in and use the toilet with no questions asked. I’ll also confess a liking for the McD’s branches that have a McCafe coffee shop inside – open 24 hours, cheaper than *$ and oddly enough the best western style cakes in Tai Po.
The abuses of the fast food industry in the United States are well documented, but what about in China? One can only logically assume that the food sourcing and processing in China is no better than it is in the U.S. and very possibly it could be orders of magnitude worse. These days I favor cha chaan tengs for a quick, cheap meal. I realize that they’re probably not sourcing Australian wagyu grass-fed beef for their beef hor fun and I hope they’re not using some chemical meat tenderizer or loading the sauce up with MSG, but most places probably are. Every day we pick the compromises we are most able to live with.
(I’ve got a funny story about the quality of McDonald’s beef that goes back to my days in advertising, back in the 1970s, can’t recall if I ever wrote about that story here.)
At any rate, we now have the latest food scandal in China. And again, it is a reminder of how corrupt and greedy some people can be. I don’t want to paint a nation of 1.5 billion people with the corruption brush, because that would be a gross exaggeration, but it does seem that these things – where people running companies make decisions that knowingly put peoples’ lives at risk in exchange for a little extra profit – occur more frequently in China than anywhere else. (Yes, I know, General Motors.)
So here’s the thing, in case you haven’t read it elsewhere. There is a food processing company in Shanghai called Shanghai Husi Food Company. They are 50% owned by an American company. They took expired beef and chicken and repackaged it, changing the expiration dates to make it appear that the meat was still fresh, and then sold it to fast food chains in China and Hong Kong.
HK McDonald’s is one of their customers. So are Starbucks, KFC and Burger King. And apparently this is not a one time occurrence – this was standard operating procedure at this company and has been going on for years. The company maintained multiple sets of records to help them perpetuate this dangerous fraud. (I suppose one might argue that if it’s been going on for years and no one has died from it, it’s not that big a deal? Yes, it is that big a deal. It’s a level of risk that is unnecessary and unacceptable to any rational person.)
McD’s in HK has reportedly removed all of the menu items that were made with food sourced from Husi. Last night as I passed one Tai Po branch of McD, I saw they had large red signs in their windows – all Chinese-only – that were probably informing customers of this. (I guess they didn’t bother to post English versions of the sign because they don’t care about their white or brown customers.)
Here’s a few McD’s facts courtesy of the SCMP:
- There are currently 239 branches in Hong Kong employing more than 15,000 people.
- The first HK McD opened in 1975 on Paterson Street in Causeway Bay. The 3,000 square foot restaurant paid $64,500 a month in rent.
- In 1992, 7 of the 10 busiest McD’s in the world were in Hong Kong.
A retired American comes to Hong Kong as a tourist. He’s booked everything first class. He’s met at the airport by his tour guide, who says to him, “Welcome to Hong Kong Mr. Smith. I imagine you’re tired after your long flight. I’ll take you to your hotel where you can take a shower and relax for a bit before we get started.”
But the tourist says, “No! I’ve waited my whole life to come to Hong Kong. I love Chinese people. I love Chinese food. I want to get out there and start experiencing Hong Kong right away. I don’t want to go to the hotel yet. I want you to take me to the most popular restaurant in Hong Kong!”
So the tour guide shrugs his shoulders and takes him to McDonalds.
Unrelated HK food items:
The first location of the Press Room, the one on Hollywood Road, has now closed after the landlord reportedly sought to increase their rent by 500%. Because why should the landlord continue to make a reasonable profit from a successful business that has been there for years and probably always paid their bills on time?
The same group operates The Pawn in Wanchai, which has now closed. Reports differ as to whether this is going to be just a renovation or if it will re-open with a new name and concept (but still managed by the same group).
The SCMP quotes food critic Walter Kei (whoever he is, a quick Google on his name turns up a press release from The Link calling him “a renowned gourmet traveller and wine taster.”)
Food critic Walter Kei said the proliferation of trendy restaurants was another problem.
“There are too many restaurants in the market,” he said. This led to cut-throat competition and drove up staff costs.
Kei said that with high rents and labour costs, the only cost that could be cut was food.
This was compromising quality but consumers didn’t know because food writers and critics weren’t telling them. “The so-called food reviews are only to promote new places, not the quality of the content,” he said.
“Writers are afraid of offending restaurants.”
As a result, Kei said, people had higher tolerance of bad ingredients and bad food sourcing.
He’s probably correct. HK culture cares about size of portions and price and not so much about taste, while the great majority of HK food bloggers who write in English only review places that give them free meals.
Restaurateur and critic Lau Kin-wai said he shut the doors of his famous Yellow Door Kitchen a couple of months ago more because of staff issues than rent.
“I can’t hire someone to wash dishes even with HK$10,000 a month,” he said.
I suspect there’s a little bit more to it than that. Now that my wife is working as a waitress, I’m getting to hear directly about how shittily some restaurant owners and managers treat their staff.