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South Beauty’s ugly side exposed

(Global Times)

11:33, September 03, 2011

In yet another food safety scandal involving a high-profile company, award-winning restaurant franchise South Beauty Company has come under fire for questionable sanitary practices in its kitchens.

Among other health violations, the company's Qingdao store in Shandong Province reportedly served spoiled fish and passed off fruit concentrates as fresh juices, according to a report by the city's Chengshi Xinbao Friday.

The press department of South Beauty's Beijing headquarters could not be reached for comment Friday, but the company released a statement on its official Weibo page a few hours after the report, denying the charges.

According to the article, which does not identify who wrote it, a journalist from the newspaper infiltrated the restaurant disguised as a new recruit and worked in its kitchen for three days.

"A sous chef presented a live fish to a table for approval," the undercover reporter observed. "When the grass carp was served, it tasted bad."

One of the employees confessed to the reporter that the sous chef instead used a fish that had long been dead, according to the report.

"Such things as replacing a live fish with a dead one would never happen at a South Beauty restaurant," the company statement read.

Other charges made in the report include the use of dirty uniforms, utensils that had not been sterilized and restaurant employees eating untouched leftovers.

"The company takes (these allegations) seriously and has assigned an investigation team to Qingdao," according to the company statement.

South Beauty is known for its pricey food and luxury décor, ambitiously targeting "business elites and important political figures," according to its official website. It has been favorably rated by the press, including English language lifestyle magazine The Beijinger, which named it readers' favorite restaurant in March.

The company's founder and board of directors' president Zhang Lan started her business career in 1991 when she opened a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing with an initial investment of 130,000 yuan ($20,371), according to the Chengdu Evening News.

The company now owns over 50 chain stores across China and is seeking to be listed on the A share market.

"Is South Beauty really as high-end as it projects itself to be?" asked the Qingdao newspaper, which has a record of covering food safety issues using undercover reporters.

Evidence from the latest revelation was not entirely conclusive, admitted the reporter, who sneaked into the Qingdao restaurant's walk-in storage facility and detected jars of what looked like fruit concentrates. The reporter "failed to read the labels," according to the report.

The newspaper's accusation is the latest in a string of media-led food safety investigations targeting large companies.

In July, Hong Kong-listed noodle chain Ajisen Ramen was accused of misleading consumers over the pork soup used in its food.

The company admitted to using concentrates, but maintained that it had been distilled from pork stew. Ajisen Ramen's share price fell by 8.29 percent on July 25.

In August, KFC was similarly charged with using soybean powders in its soymilk.

In defense of the country's restaurant industry, China Hotel Association chairwoman Han Ming blamed what she called the "less than perfect performance" of Chinese restaurants on a traditional lack of interest in public hygiene, a problem that takes time, rather than public outrage, to fix, she said.

"You see people spit and litter even in Beijing. That's how much we still need education on cleanliness," Han said, admitting that negligence of cleanliness is a disgraceful part of China's food culture.

South Beauty is a member company of Han Ming's hotel and restaurant industry association.

Sales made by the Chinese restaurant and food service sector reached nearly 18 trillion yuan last year, accounting for 11.4 percent of retail sales of all consumer goods, according to China Investment Consultancy (ocn.com.cn). Sector sales are expected to reach 20 trillion yuan this year.

Public opinion was divided over the South Beauty scandal. "There is just no stopping the great fall of morality in Chinese restaurants," wrote a Weibo user.

"But undercover reporters (in recent cases) don't always have proof beyond reasonable doubt," wrote another. "The other side of the story deserves to be heard."

Amid the general substandard sanitation performances, some diners appear to have developed a psychological immune system that helps them enjoy the taste and ignore the story behind it.

Chi Gang, a 28-year-old talent scout in Beijing, said he does not believe any restaurant is clean, but being a food lover, he will still eat out.

"The only thing that would stop me is seeing the cook throw flies in my food," he said.

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