The chicken's kind of greasy but very tasty. The company is kind of sleazy but very formidable. The market is kind of fascistic but extremely lucrative.
The irony is simply delicious.
Yum Brands Inc., a company that for decades has been serially dishonest with its customers about the relative healthfulness of its products, is now under suspicion of pulling a fast one on China.
China! The authoritarian police state, where a Great Firewall of human and digital censorship suppresses free expression -- backed by a vast security apparatus and kangaroo judiciary. “News” is delivered overwhelmingly by official state media and compliant private publishers in the pocket of local and regional party leaders. In short, in that country, obscuring the whole truth is a vast sector and a way of life.
So where does KFC get caught selling chickens pumped with illegal levels of antibiotics? Hahahahaha! The People's Republic! It's like being accused of shallowness by a Kardashian.
The details are a bit murky, but according to The Wall Street Journal, in 2010 and 2011, Yum submitted chicken samples to government testing agencies that contained unlawful levels of antibiotics. The question is whether the company then took corrective action, or covered its tracks and continued to purchase chicken from the two poultry suppliers where the samples originated. Here’s a clue. The chairman and CEO of Yum Brands China, Sam Su, microblogged this statement:
"We feel regretful for all the problems. I sincerely apologize to the public on behalf of the company."
Regaining lost face in China is no easy trick. We shall see if Sam Su can pullet off. Meantime, Yum Brands sales in China, which according to the Journal accounted for an astonishing 44% of corporate revenue, have plummeted.
Now it happens that the official media picked up this particular story and ran with it. But it appears to have gotten more traction via Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and the blogosphere at large. The same happened to another food company in 2011, when the Shineway brand of pork products were revealed to have been processed from hogs fed with clenbuterol, an illegal additive that poisons humans. China’s state media were in no hurry to start a panic, but bloggers broke the story and it went instantly viral.
Likewise the derailment that year of the nation's new magnetic-levitation trains killed 38 people and injured 200. The government ordered the Chinese media not to cover the accident, and the media obliged -- but cell phone pictures from the scene spread in social media and soon revealed that the authorities had brought in earth-moving equipment to literally bury the evidence.
This gets to the real moral of this story. If you can’t hide from the public in a security state, how does anybody think they can do it anywhere else? When Can't Buy Me Like finally hits the shelves in March, you will be able to see exactly how the digital revolution has forced transparency on every institution on earth, and created an environment in which conduct trumps even the intrinsic qualities of goods and services.
Some advice for Yum Brands, which has now finally discovered, in the unlikeliest of places, that it lives in a glass house: You guys can do what comes naturally to you -- lie through your teeth -- but, really, don’t bother. Everyone can KFC you.