Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Not so Yummy

Kentucky Fried Chicken is owned, by a company with a distinctively “uncorporate” name – Yum! Brands, complete with the exclamation mark.  This blogger is a vegetarian and therefore has not really sampled its wares. But I am reliably told that its fried chicken, is fairly delicious.  But these days, alas, KFC is not sounding very yummy.
The problem is in China. KFC is everywhere in China. I mean everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if the icon of Americanism in China is not McDonald’s or Coca Cola, but KFC. Every street corner seems to have one.  The Chinese were happily munching or chewing or licking, or whatever you do with fried chicken. All that changed in December of last year. CCTV, that great bastion of broadcasting  and China’s answer to Doordarshan,  aired a program that claimed that local suppliers to KFC had given its chicken excessive amounts of antibiotics.  CCTV is more renowned for informing the world that Xi Jinping had a good night’s sleep rather than do investigative reporting. But, expose, it did. I am not aware of the merits or the details of the case, but you can imagine what happened to the sales of KFC in China. It dropped by a vertiguous 41% in January.
Ouch. KFC has recovered from earlier unfavourable events – SARS and Bird flu, although it was responsible for neither. Apparently, the Chinese can’t be kept away from fried chicken for long. But will it recover from this latest blow ? The Chinese are fed up with food adulteration. Remember baby food adulterated with melamine some 3 years ago.
Yum! Brands , is of course, not just KFC. Its also Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. So the company will ride this crisis. But its exposure to China is massive.  Half its global sales of some $4 bn comes from China. And this is the dilemma of China. The opportunity is massive. But the risks are also high.
This incident also calls into question the issue of safety or desirability of processed foods. Popular perception is that all processed food is bad. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact the so called “fresh” product is often the most unsafe.  Just compare tap water with Bisleri. If you knew what the “fresh veggies” went through before they landed in your shop, you might be tempted to turn non vegetarian. If you bought that raw turmeric from the store – well, I will spare you the gory details of what that goes through. Will you buy milk from the milkman if he brought the cow to your doorstep ? The less said about hygiene in the neighbouring  Udipi, the better.
In general, responsible companies that process food take greater care; from the farm gate to the time it is processed. Like for like, processed food is actually safer than “fresh food” – unless you grew it yourself.  But as the KFC incident, or the horsemeat problem in Europe shows,  there can be disastrous lapses there too.  In the quest for profitability – individual or corporate, risks are taken with food; chiefly pesticides in crops and the cocktail of hormones and drugs with animals.
Any takers for retiring to the ancestral village (Sriram – the distance from Eugene to Pattamadai is rather long !) and growing your own stuff in the backyard ?

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