china

Chicken Brands Scramble to Reassure Consumers as Chickpocolypse Hits China

Posted by Abe Sauer on April 15, 2013 10:45 AM

"A friendly reminder: Kyochon Restaurant's chicken is all supplied by the Tyson Company of America. All chicken products pass strict inspection and quarantine and quality controls. All chicken products are cooked above 174° C for more than 15-18 minutes and are freshly prepared. So, everyone has nothing to worry about."

So read the second of two Weibo messages posted Sunday about H7N9 from the South Korean fried chicken chain Kyochon, the first of which asked and answered the question, "Recently, is it true one shouldn't eat chicken?" 

Meanwhile, on Tyson's Weibo account, the chicken supplier similarly asked, "Recently H7N9 avian flu has everyone running scared, should poultry and livestock meat be avoided?" Then there's KFC. Poor, poor KFC.

On Friday, Yum! Brands announced that KFC China's March sales were down 16 percent. The result was worse than expected for the month, but given KFC's stocks last week, probably unsurprising. The brand rightfully blamed the rise of deadly avian flu cases and prominent reports of virus transference from chickens. In cities like Shanghai, authorities rounded up and executed some 20,000 chickens.

Chicken prices are collapsing. In the city of Foshan, one report quoted a distraught farmer saying that chickens that were each selling for 20 RMB ($3.20) were now going for 5.3 RMB ($0.83). The large farm reported a loss of 2 million RMB ($321,540) in just the last two days. On Sunday, desperate farmers in the city of Wuhan organized a "“百鸡宴" or "100 Chicken Dinner" in a hotel ballroom. The farmers had prepared 100 various chicken dinners and scarfed them down as a PR stunt to inspire consumer trust. The event was open to the public but as news outlet 163.com wryly noted, "there weren't many onlookers, and nobody joined in."

China understands the economic risks. Noting that "economic losses amounted to 10 billion yuan ($1.62 billion) within a week of the H7N9 outbreak," a Monday editorial in state run newspaper Global Times begged consumers to be reasonable about avoiding all chicken. "It's an understandable reaction for people to eat little or no poultry during a bird flu situation… But we also believe the public should somewhat restrain their anxieties to avoid this incident becoming a disaster for the whole poultry industry." But as one popular Weibo post opined on the government's push for chicken eating, "If the government officials took the lead by eating chicken, you might be more trustworthy…"

It may be oo little, too late for the Chinese government's efforts. With Beijing and Henan reporting new infections and 13 dead and at least 60 confirmed cases, most Chinese residents are taking a safe-than-sorry approach to chicken.

Tyson may be insisting that its chicken is safe to eat but that may be an academic argument if Tyson chicken isn't available. At the upscale City Shop market outside the Weining Road subway stop in Shanghai, shelves with the Tyson logo sat empty, a poultry section devoid of product. 

As grocers removed chicken from the shelves, Beijing Airport Inflight Kitchen reported that airlines have asked to stop delivery of chicken meals. High-end hotels in Shanghai like the Four Seasons have stopped serving chicken and it should come as little surprise that many Shanghai restaurants are reporting a sudden, severe reticence by customers to partake in the local delicacy of bloody, undercooked chicken. Even eBay-like online retail giant Taobao suspended its sales of live chickens.

Across the road from that City Shop, a sign in the window of KFC demonstrates just how compound the damage is for the Colonel. The image of a fist punching outward hangs prominently inside the entryway window to the Weining location, above it a bold yellow and red declaration: "KFC Thunderbolt Strike. Assuring Rigorous Chicken Selection. Scientific breeding with No Antibiotics."

As bird flu is taking a bite out of KFC's business, the brand is still at the beginning of a major campaign to restore consumer trust after an antibiotic chicken supply scandal broke out a couple of months ago. That PR disaster cut nearly 40 percent off KFC China's January sales.

Next to a middle school, the KFC is usually packed with students after school has been dismissed, but on Monday, as it had been almost all of last week, only a few of the red track-suited students could be found inside.

The answers to Tyson and Kyochon's questions about whether or not chicken is safe to eat doesn't appear to even be a part of considerations for many Chinese consumers who have weathered too many food safety scandals in the recent past. In response to one online survey at hoolo.tv asking visitors if they were still eating chicken and poultry, 40 percent replied no due to "fear of disease." Another 24 percent also said no, citing "peace of mind."

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