I know it sounds like a headline from news satire site The Onion, but I promise you this one’s completely true. Chinese consumers were shocked to learn that “Five Spice” donkey meat sold by Wal-Mart contained the DNA of animals that were definitely not donkey.
Bloomberg reports that “Wal-Mart withdrew all products from vendor Dezhou Fujude Food Company Ltd., after fox DNA was identified in samples. Yucheng, China authorities put Dezhou Fujude officials in ‘criminal detention,’ and Wal-Mart is considering legal action.” The retailer offered apologies and refunds to those who had purchased the tainted product.
The incident joins the long string of safety violations and false labeling that have plagued the global food system in recent years. It also doesn’t bode well for Wal-Mart, which despite being the world’s largest retailer, has struggled to establish a foothold in China’s rapidly growing economy.
“In 2011, China fined Wal-Mart, along with Carrefour, a combined 9.5 million yuan ($1.57 million) for manipulating product prices. Wal-Mart was also fined that year in China for selling duck meat past its expiry date,” reports Reuters.
“This is another hit on Wal-Mart’s brand, meaning wealthy shoppers will start to lose the trust they had before,” Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director of China Market Research (CMR) Group, told Reuters. The firm estimates that Wal-Mart’s market share fell from 7.5 percent to 5.2 percent over the last three years.
Perhaps most importantly, the incident sheds yet another uncomfortable spotlight on the lack of safety and accountability in the meat industry at large. Whether it’s tainted donkey or salmonella in chicken, the regulatory system is porous at best. Doing business with discount retailers like Wal-Mart encourages suppliers like Dezhou to sacrifice quality for quantity. Sadly, when something tragic or shocking occurs, Wal-Mart is safe, able to point the finger at the supplier, when it’s their own culture of “low prices at any cost” that encouraged the problem in the first place.
And lest you think that this contamination could only happen in regulation-poor China, remember that in 2013 Europe discovered its beef was full of horse, and that last February, an investigation by environmental non-profit Oceana found that about a third of fish sold in the USA is intentionally mislabeled, with cheaper fish replacing more expensive varieties.
Read more: Beware! The 6 Most Mislabeled Foods