By Michael Ardaiolo
Zhao Pu, a CCTV anchorman, made enemies in the yogurt and jelly industries early last week when he spoke his mind on Weibo, advising consumers to stay away from the possibly suspect confectioneries: “You never eat solid yogurt or jelly ever again, especially the kids. The inside story is horrible, but I won’t go into details.”
His reliable source? A text message from a colleague investigating the industry.
An anchorman spilling a story before it airs might have originated as a CCTV human resources problem, but it grew into something much more consequential.
For starters, an actual journalist appeared to corroborate it. Zhu Wenqiang of The Economic Observer wrote on his microblog, “a friend working for the CCTV said that eating yogurt is like eating rotten leather shoes. And this year’s March 15 Gala to expose business fraud had intended to expose the yogurt scandal, but, the program was not broadcast.”
Two unverified comments should not start a scandal, even if they originate from players in the media. China’s food industry, however, has a serious soft power problem. Thanks to numerous health and safety infractions over the last couple of years, making a comment like Zhao’s is akin to putting a cigarette out in a pile of dry leaves. It is no wonder the Internet’s kindle went up in flames.
Despite lack of evidence, the rumor evolved to claiming that Chinese yogurt-makers were adding harmful industrial gelatin, made from used leatherwear, in place of edible gelatin.
Major manufacturing groups, such as the China Association of Bakery and Confectionery Industry, the China National Confectionery Association and the China Dairy Industry Association, were quick to respond. They claim that it is neither possible (as it would ruin the taste) nor beneficial (as it would only provide a meager savings) to use industrial-grade gelatin.
The final stage of the weeklong rumor-train was the backlash. Zhao and Zhu were subjected to journalist-on-journalist verbal violence for their lack of reporting standards.
As the cycle comes to an end, Zhao Pu goes back to his job reading the news, yogurt-and jelly-makers prep a new round of expensive ad campaigns to highlight their quality control and dedication to natural products, and we are left to, once again, hesitate before buying anything stamped with a “Made in China” insignia.