KFC sues over 'eight-legged chickens,' and other false food safety rumors

KFC has filed lawsuits against three Chinese companies, alleging that their social media accounts spread rumors about its food. What has China done to improve food safety in the wake of a damaging supplier scandal last year? 

Stringer/Reuters/File
Laborers clean the external wall of a KFC restaurant in Huaibei, Anhui province, in 2013. KFC filed a lawsuit against three Chinese companies whose social media accounts spread false rumors, such as that their chickens have eight legs.

KFC said Monday it filed a lawsuit against three companies in China, alleging that their social media accounts spread damaging rumors about the chain's food. 

Among them:  that the chain uses chickens on its menu that are genetically modified and have six wings and eight legs, KFC posted an earlier announcement on its Chinese website. The restaurant is seeking 1.5 million yuan ($242,000 US) and an apology from each company that operated accounts on the mobile phone app WeChat.

The rumors are outlandish, but that's small comfort to KFC. China's largest restaurant operator is less than a year removed from a damaging scandal involving one of its largest meat suppliers, Shanghai Husi Food Co. In 2014, a TV report from China's official news agency Xinhua filmed workers at a Shanghai Husi plant allegedly committing a litany of food safety violations, including repackaging expired meat with new expiration dates and picking up meat from off the factory floor to package for selling. Shanghai Husi was also a major supplier for McDonald's in the region. 

The scandal was a huge financial hit to KFC parent company Yum! Brands which was just recovering its reputation from a 2012 scandal involving poultry birds pumped with excessive antibiotics. Other food chains, such as Starbucks and Burger King, had similar fallouts with other food suppliers in China.

Since the episode, food companies and the Chinese government have taken steps to improve the country's food safety record. China first developed a unified food and drug administration at the national level in 2013, Mike Doyle, the director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, says in a phone interview. 

"The Chinese government are doing a lot focused on food safety," David Acheson, president and CEO of food industry consulting firm The Acheson Group, adds in an e-mail. "They have just come out with a fourth revision to their food safety laws and continue to tighten things up.  They seem to be heavily focused on traceability with the new laws as well as stiffer penalties if the laws are broken."

In April 2015, China's top legislature body, the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, voted to adopt an amendment to the Food Safety Law that served harsher penalties to offenders, according to Xinhua. It is the first change to the law since it went into effect in 2009. The law will have 50 more articles to tighten regulations and dish out larger punishments for food safety-related violations, according to the news agency.

The amendment has been touted as the "toughest food safety law" in China's history, according to Xinhua, and a step in the right direction in light of the recent food scandals. The new law will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2015. However, food safety in China still has room for a lot of improvement, experts say. According to a report from inspections provider AsiaInspection, 51.7 percent of food inspections between the first and third quarters of 2014 in mainland China failed. Orders for food inspections in China have increased by 30 percent between 2013 and 2014. 

Doyle says the country still has a long way to go before its hygienic and safety standards catches up with the United States.

"Each step they’re taking is a step forward, but i still believe they have a lot of marching to do before they’re in step with the United States," he says.

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