Food safety was on the agenda again during March with reports in China that Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets were repeatedly using cooking oil for up to ten days. The story, which was widely covered by local media outlets – including numerous websites, also carried statements from experts who believed prolonged use of oil may cause cancer. The quick spread of the story and the level of concern exhibited on various bulletin board forums (BBS forums) demonstrated once again the need for companies to monitor the press and respond quickly to allegations in an open and transparent manner. After almost three weeks of media allegations (and hundreds of stories), reports in late March appear to have cleared the company of any wrongdoing.
The story first surfaced on 8 March in the Guangzhou-based Information Times, which reported that KFC branches in a number of cities in Shaanxi had been discovered adding magnesium trisilicate to cooking oil to prolong its usage. Subsequent reports explained that magnesium trisilicate is a white, odourless and tasteless powder, which is used to absorb odours and impurities of overused turbid oil, as well as reducing acidity and oxidisation. Cleaning the oil in this manner allows it to be used repeatedly for up to ten days.
When the story broke, KFC (China) released a statement saying that reusing cooking oil in this manner was not harmful and that the practice is in compliance with the national food safety standard. The company argued that the product has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a safe substance. It stated that the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have both allowed the use of the powder purifier as food additive. KFC (China) stated it would only stop using the product if was found to breach China's food safety standard.
KFC’s defence of the practice was not immediately accepted. A contributor to the Legal Daily [fazhi ribao] (10 March) implied that KFC was trying keep its use of magnesium trisilicate a secret. Why, the author asked, is the practice now reported as new, when the Yuyao Daily [yuyao ribao] published its concerns about KFC using the product on 16 June 2004 and the Youth News [qingnian shixun] reported on the potential deleterious affects of the product on 2 March 2006?
It seemed at first that the health authorities agreed. Inspections of KFC outlets in three cities (Xianyang, Yulin, and Xian) led the confiscation of the so-called “oil powder”. The Shaanxi provincial health administration reported the case to the national Ministry of Health for further investigation. Authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou followed suit shortly afterwards. The quick response may have been partly due to the fact that the oil powder scare was the third such incident for KFC. In March 2005, a suspected carcinogenic food dye called Sudan 1 was discovered in roast chicken wings. In November 2006, the food chain suffered a blow after adverse publicity in the US over the use of harmful trans-fatty acids.
The product used by KFC was in fact Magnesol XL, an FDA-approved product by the Dallas Group of America Inc (based in New Jersey). The Dallas Group has been involved in the oleo-chemical purification for 30 years and has a strong reputation. A material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the product notes no special precautions for handling and storage, and is classified as non-toxic by oral administration. The MSDS states that “this product does not contain any ingredient designated by IARC, NTP, ACGIH, or OSHA as probable or suspected human carcinogens”.
News that the product is safe for human consumption was available in Chinese (online and for free) by the middle of the month, but the story that “oil powder” was harmful to human health lingered. By the time that stories started emerging that the Ministry of Health had given the product and process the green light, there were already thousands of negative stories in circulation. A search on Baidu (the most popular search engine in China) for “KFC” + “oil powder” [“肯德基” + “濾油粉”] on 28 March returned 247,000 results. A search on Baidu’s blog-search engine for the same keywords resulted in 287 entries.
What should a company do in the face of such overwhelming and negative publicity over a product that is not harmful? From the point of view of rational business decision making, the original statement made perfect sense. KFC knew the product was safe, that it was approved for use in the US and conformed to Chinese standards. So stating this was surely the right thing to do. However, evidence for a court and the “court of public opinion” are two very different matters.
Despite the company’s claims, stories of the carcinogenic properties of “oil powder” only intensified, along with other claims that oil reused in this manner was a health hazard. KFC believed that if it informed consumers about the safety of oil powder, then this would clear up the matter. But like so many other instances of this nature, some people were more interested in listening to experts with alternative views. KFC’s statement in some ways only inflamed the story.
There are, I think, two things a company can do in a situation like this. First, it has to move very quickly. Today, information spreads rapidly, and KFC should have moved very quickly to respond. Second, it should have addressed concerns, one by one. It could have had on hand documentation that was already translated into Chinese and could be disseminated in various ways. Perhaps it should have had information about the use of oil powder publicly available so that claims of secrecy could be dispensed with.
Relying on truth and facts is not enough. As irrational as this seems, companies caught in situations like this need to show that they are open and transparent. Consumers will respond to honesty. Notices in outlets could have allayed fears. Translations of the MSDS into Chinese might have helped convince people that the product was safe. Engaging with as many of its stakeholders, and not just consumers, could have alerted it to this issue, or other issues that are on the horizon.
KFC has a strong reputation in China. Its long history in the country means that many people know the brand and trust it. Stories like this one, however, have the potential to damage its reputation. In truth, stories about products that are used widely in the food industry have the potential to harm the entire industry. Other food outlets should be prepared for any ongoing fallout over the use of oil powder.