Rot­ten Cater­ers

Food Scan­dal:

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Kui Yanzhang

It was a bas­ket of rot­ten toma­toes and moldy onions that sparked the furor among the par­ents of chil­dren at a pri­vate in­ter­na­tional school in Shang­hai, ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber re­port in the Xin­min Evening News. It im­me­di­ately sparked re­newed con­cern about food safety among par­ents of school­child­ren.

SMIC Pri­vate School in Shang­hai, founded in 2001 with over 2,000 in­ter­na­tional stu­dents from more than 20 coun­tries, was or­dered by the Shang­hai Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion to drop its cater­ing ser­vice provider af­ter par­ents chanced upon the kitchen's stom­ach-churn­ing state.

String of Com­plaints

On Oc­to­ber 17, Feng Qi (pseu­do­nym) was at work in her of­fice when a pic­ture came up on her Wechat ac­count of a lunch at SMIC Pri­vate School, which con­sisted of just two steamed buns, a duck leg, a spoon­ful of veg­eta­bles and a car­ton of milk. The pic­ture was taken and up­loaded by a par­ent who vis­ited the school. Feng saw im­me­di­ately that the food in the pic­ture was very dif­fer­ent from the menu the school, where her child was a third-year pupil, had promised to par­ents. The so­cial me­dia group where the im­age was posted in­cluded 500 par­ents of el­e­men­tary stu­dents en­rolled at the school – all of whom paid tu­ition fees of 50,000 yuan (US$7,220) an­nu­ally, and 24 yuan (US$3.5) per meal. Com­plaints started to pour in af­ter the pic­ture was posted.

SMIC Pri­vate School quickly re­sponded that the meal served that day was not stan­dard, and the school promised to ask the cater­ing ser­vice provider to of­fer bet­ter food. Two days later, how­ever, new pictures emerged show­ing a meal of veg­eta­bles – con­sist­ing of car­rot, corn and beans – an egg, a meat soup and rice, which again fu­eled the anger of par­ents.

“The veg­eta­bles were frozen, there were no fresh veg­eta­bles at all,” Feng told Newschina.

At 11am on Oc­to­ber 19, SMIC Pri­vate School sent an email to par­ents say­ing the school would or­ga­nize an in­for­ma­tion ses­sion about the lunch menu at 3:30pm – four and a half hours be­fore it was due to start. This prompted a new round of com­plaints from par­ents who ques­tioned the sin­cer­ity of the school.

Feng's flex­i­ble work sched­ule al­lowed her to at­tend the meet­ing, which was held in a large class­room. School prin­ci­pal Zhu Ronglin, as well as the re­gional man­ager of the cater­ing ser­vice provider – Shang­hai Eurest Food Tech­nolo­gies Ser­vice Com­pany – and a school cafe­te­ria man­ager joined in the meet­ing. That day, par­ents im­me­di­ately de­manded the school had to change cater­ers.

“The school prin­ci­pal replied that fur­ther dis­cus­sions would be re­quired by the school man­age­ment au­thor­ity be­fore com­ing up with a well-bal­anced so­lu­tion,” He Nuonuo (pseu­do­nym), an­other par­ent who at­tended the meet­ing, told our re­porter. “The prin­ci­pal hoped par­ents would wait a week, but some were ag­i­tated and re­fused.”

“You've never been a leader, right? I al­ready said we would tighten su­per­vi­sion, what else do you want?” Zhu abruptly re­sponded, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses. “How about you give me a cor­rec­tion plan.” The prin­ci­pal's words en­raged par­ents who de­manded to in­spect the school kitchen them­selves.

Un­hy­gienic Con­di­tions

Around 4pm, Feng Qi and an­other par­ent in­spected the kitchen af­ter gain­ing per­mis­sion from the prin­ci­pal and the cater­ing ser­vice sup­plier. Feng checked the freezer

first, and said she dis­cov­ered boxes of pig skin and dried scal­lops that car­ried la­bels say­ing they had been opened on Oc­to­ber 20 – in what ap­peared to be a clear fab­ri­ca­tion given the in­spec­tion was on Oc­to­ber 19.

What's more, she said she saw a large quan­tity of frozen veg­eta­bles and meat which made her feel un­com­fort­able. “We never eat this kind of [frozen] food be­cause it is un­healthy,” she told our re­porter. Feng then checked the dish-wash­ing area, find­ing bowls in the kitchen that she said had dish-wash­ing de­ter­gent residue on them.

Feng then said she found that the ex­pi­ra­tion date on the pack­ag­ing of some fla­vor­ing had been fab­ri­cated – the ex­pi­ra­tion date had been changed from June 4, 2018 to May 3, 2019. Af­ter that, she was as­ton­ished to see three bas­kets of rot­ten toma­toes and two bas­kets of moldy onions, she said. More par­ents fol­lowed, some burst­ing into tears at the sight of the spoiled veg­eta­bles. Sev­eral par­ents then called the po­lice, who blocked off the kitchen when they ar­rived. Reg­u­la­tors and education au­thor­i­ties ar­rived soon af­ter.

At 7pm, the school or­ga­nized an­other meet­ing with par­ents that ran un­til mid­night, where a school board mem­ber showed up from Bei­jing with a so­lu­tion. The so­lu­tion con­sisted of three parts: The first was to cut ties with caterer Eurest. The sec­ond was that par­ents could pro­vide food for their chil­dren, and the school would pro­vide mi­crowave ovens. The third was to surveil the kitchens and al­low par­ents to take part in the search for a new caterer.

Two days af­ter the in­ci­dent, Chi­nese so­cial me­dia ran hot with claims the kitchen staff at nearby Shang­hai United In­ter­na­tional School were busy throw­ing away ex­pired bread and chicken meat. The school had the same food provider as Shang­hai SMIC. Eurest is wholly owned by the Uk-based Com­pass Group, a global cater­ing ser­vice provider. Es­tab­lished in 1941, Com­pass be­came a large-scale food ser­vice af­ter sev­eral merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions, and en­tered the Chi­nese mar­ket in 1995.

“When Com­pass Group first set foot in China, all its knives were color coded. Raw and cooked food ma­te­ri­als were kept sep­a­rate. At the time, Chi­nese cater­ing ser­vice com­pa­nies did not have such aware­ness of food safety,” a for­mer Com­pass em­ployee told Newschina on con­di­tion of anonymity.

A re­cent re­port on the Chi­nese cater­ing mar­ket re­leased by the In­tel­li­gence Re­search Group ranked Com­pass Group ninth among China's top 10 large-scale cater­ing ser­vice providers. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent fi­nan­cial re­port on Com­pass Group, the Asian mar­ket ac­counted for only 16 per­cent of its rev­enue.

In re­cent years, Eurest has reg­u­larly been re­ported for oper­a­tional risks. In 2014, the en­ter­prise was found to be in tax ar­rears. The com­pany also had sev­eral la­bor con­tract dis­putes in 2013, 2014 and 2017. A re­port by the Na­tional En­ter­prise Credit In­for­ma­tion Pub­lic­ity Sys­tem, re­leased on Oc­to­ber 20, 2018 showed that the com­pany was un­con­tactable at its reg­is­tered ad­dresses. Fur­ther­more, the com­pany's branches in Shang­hai's Pudong and Changn­ing Districts and the city of Chang­shu in Jiangsu Prov­ince had been shut­tered.

Joint Su­per­vi­sion

Af­ter the rot­ten tomato in­ci­dent, Shang­hai Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Education Com­mis­sion con­ducted a joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion of each of the 28 cafe­te­rias that used cater­ing ser­vices pro­vided by Eurest, find­ing that two had is­sues.

A bot­tle of fla­vor­ing with a fake la­bel was found in the can­teen of Smic-shanda Pri­vate Kinder­garten, and a bot­tle of ex­pired fla­vor­ing and ex­pired bread was dis­cov­ered in the garbage bin out­side the kitchen of Con­cor­dia In­ter­na­tional School Shang­hai. The reg­u­la­tor found no is­sues with the other schools. The three schools im­pli­cated, in­clud­ing SMIC Pri­vate School, were told to stop us­ing Eurest's cater­ing ser­vice and a fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the com­pany is now un­der­way.

On Oc­to­ber 22, SMIC and Eurest each re­leased state­ments apol­o­giz­ing. SMIC an­nounced the school prin­ci­pal, di­rec­tor of gen­eral af­fairs, and cafe­te­ria co­or­di­na­tor had all been re­moved from their posts. Eurest said it had es­tab­lished a work­ing team and en­gaged a third party food safety com­pany to con­duct a thor­ough check of all its ven­dors, ar­gu­ing that the prob­lem­atic food ma­te­ri­als had not been used and no child was found to have be­come ill.

Sev­eral par­ents at Shang­hai SMIC Pri­vate School told our re­porter that the school part­nered with Eurest in 2014 af­ter it stopped us­ing the cater­ing ser­vice Sodexo, be­cause par­ents were dis­sat­is­fied with its food qual­ity. Ac­cord­ing to par­ent He Nuonuo, four cater­ing ser­vice sup­pli­ers were in­volved in the bid­ding, but on the vote date, one of the bid­ders with­drew. More than 10 peo­ple voted, in­clud­ing teacher rep­re­sen­ta­tives, mem­bers of the school board, par­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the moral education di­rec­tor. The school prin­ci­pal, gen­eral af­fairs head and can­teen di­rec­tor did not at­tend.

Eurest ul­ti­mately stood out. Since 2014, its food qual­ity had been un­der the su­per­vi­sion of three par­ties: the in­ter­nal food qual­ity de­part­ment of the com­pany, the school, and par­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The for­mer em­ployee of Eurest told Newschina that the com­pany had an in­de­pen­dent de­part­ment re­spon­si­ble for food qual­ity – the Health, Safety and En­vi­ron­ment (HSE) De­part­ment, which con­ducts train­ing and non-sched­uled in­spec­tions at cafe­te­rias. But in re­cent years, he said, the de­part­ment had fewer and fewer in­spec­tions and less train­ing – roughly once ev­ery three months.

“Many cafe­te­ria staff have a rel­a­tively low level of education and it is very hard for them to grasp food qual­ity knowl­edge in train­ing ses­sions held months apart,” he said. “Some cafe­te­rias that have main­tained a good re­la­tion­ship with HSE are even in­formed in ad­vance of an in­spec­tion.” As for the qual­ity of food, the pur­chas­ing de­part­ment and the kitchen chief are held jointly ac­count­able.

He added that about 95 per­cent of the meat of­fered by Eurest was frozen, which made it eas­ier to pre­serve and cheaper, and that it was less likely to have prob­lems due to low-tem­per­a­ture ster­il­iza­tion. Par­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives could check the hy­giene con­di­tions of cafe­te­rias but were not al­lowed to en­ter kitchens. Af­ter the food safety scare, par­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives were al­lowed to en­ter the kitchen to check the food qual­ity. Su­per­vi­sion from the school was the last line of de­fense, and that line ap­pears to have been bro­ken. As of press time, SMIC Pri­vate School had failed to re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view.

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