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The soy sauce scandal and why it’s important

Posted: 2 November 2022 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott delves into a potential scandal unfolding in China surrounding soy sauce manufactured by Foshan Haitian Flavouring & Food and highlights a warning food and beverage manufacturers should heed.

chris' corner

When is the last time you had one of those ‘well that all adds up’ moments? I had one recently when I was discussing food safety and fraud topics with a very good friend and Chinese academic who visited me at Queen’s University. He told me about a scandal that had erupted in China relating to soy sauce.

Before we leap headfirst into the story, a little bit about soy sauce itself. If you are like me, you have at least one bottle at home and use it for cooking quite a number of different foods. It’s a ‘must have’ ingredient in my stir fry and I add it as part of a spice/herb mixture ‘invented’ to bake fish.

I’d never really thought about how it was produced until I read up on it and found it’s a product of soy fermentation with a very specific fungus. The soybeans are steamed, mixed with wheat and salt and the fermentation and maturation process takes around six months. It’s then filtered and heat sterilised before being bottled and ready for sale. Quite a lengthy and expensive process for a food item.

A two-tier food system?

Now back to China and the woes of the multibillion-dollar soy sauce maker Foshan Haitian Flavouring & Food. The scandal has wiped $8 billion dollars off its share price – that would get the attention of any food manufacturing business.

The company has faced accusations of implementing “double standards” in its domestic and overseas products and it has become one of the top social media scandals of recent years in China. Ever since the melamine scandal of 2008, it’s been proven that food safety stories can go viral on social media platforms such as Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, very easily. Such social media platforms are a hugely important part of Chinese society and information sharing (as with many other parts of the world).

The allegations aimed at the soy sauce product allege that products sold in China were inferior to those sold in Japan. It’s claimed that domestically sold soy sauce contained many more ingredients, including additives such as flavour enhancers, preservatives, and sweeteners. The company issued several media statements trying to reassure consumers that all its products comply with China’s Food Safety regulations and are subject rigorous inspection by Chinese authorities. The government in China confirmed this was the case and while there were absolutely no food safety concerns, it didn’t stop many becoming worried and actually dumping large amounts of soy sauce that they had in their households.

What lies behind this scandal is the term “hex technology”, which is used in China to describe food companies that use additives in food products. Many Chinese consumers check labels very carefully to try and ensure they are purchasing only ‘natural products’. What was once considered clever technology by food companies is now rejected by many consumers.

TikTok

TikTok, or DouYin in China, has been a key part of this story’s spread

The lightbulb moment

So, now the ‘well that all adds up’ moment I had. Several years ago I had one of the many tip offs I get about food fraud and it involved soy sauce. I was told very low-quality product was being imported into the UK by criminal gangs and distributed across Chinese restaurant networks in England. I did discuss this with one of the regulatory agencies at the time but there was little interest and I had no evidence other than the phone call I received.

What I have subsequently found out as part of my recent research on the topic of soy sauce there is a very inferior product produced via chemical processes rather than the natural fermentation. My gut feeling is that this was what was coming into the UK. I wonder if this a topic that should be investigated to determine if this is really happening?

Why does it matter?  

The real importance of this soy sauce tale is twofold. First of all, the consumers’ movement away from ‘hex technology’ foods will come to Europe and the UK sooner rather than later (food manufacturers take note).

Secondly, there is the practice of some food companies to have different formulations and standards for food sold into different regions. Quite recently the food giant Unilever faced a similar scandal in China, after the company was accused of using different ingredients in different ingredients in the Chinese and overseas versions of its Magnum ice creams compared with Europe.

It turned out that this was true and some excuses about different markets having different tastes was put forward by the company. The more likely reason was the ingredients being used in the Chinese products were substantially cheaper. In Europe we had the scandal of ‘apartheid foods’ a few years ago when it was found the same thing happening with some food products being sold in the East and West of Europe with very different formulations. Once again, cheaper ingredients were being used in markets where food was generally cheaper in.

So there is yet another warning for food manufacturers to heed: try this practice at your peril! You will be found out and the main loser will be the companies who are trying to make a quick buck out of producing inferior products for some.

So the next time you reach for that bottle of soy sauce, just remember how complicated a food item it is and how it has lost one company a lot of money and credibility.