A popular Chinese food company has found itself at the center of a social media storm during the National Day holiday, after facing accusations of implementing “double standards” in its domestic and overseas products.
The controversy began last week, when users on Chinese social media noted that soy sauce made by Haitian Flavoring and Food Co. Ltd. — a hugely successful condiment maker based in the southern city of Foshan — contains fewer ingredients abroad.
The version of the product sold in Japan contains only natural ingredients such as water, soybeans, and wheat, while the Chinese version of the sauce contains a number of additives, including flavor enhancers, preservatives, and sweeteners, according to videos posted online.
Though there is no suggestion that Haidian’s products are unsafe, these posts went massively viral over the weekend, fueled by Chinese consumers’ longstanding food safety concerns and suspicions that brands use inferior ingredients in the Chinese market.
The term “hex technology” — originally a gaming term referring to the combination of magic and technology, which is now used in China to describe food companies’ use of additives in food products — has been trending on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, receiving over 3 billion views as of Thursday afternoon.
Chinese social media is filled with posts by users who are checking the ingredient lists of the food they have stored at home. Many other viral posts feature people searching for “zero-additive” products.
Haitian — a household name in China that sells over 100 varieties of condiments and generated revenues in excess of 25 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) in 2021 — has struggled to allay customers’ concerns, despite issuing two statements defending its actions.
Left: The Chinese version Haitian’s soy sauce, which contains a number of additives; right: The version of the product sold in Japan containing only natural ingredients such as water, soybeans, and wheat. From @我是爱笑笑呀_1999 on Weibo
Last Friday, the company released an initial statement via the Chinese social platform Weibo, saying that all its products comply with China’s Food Safety Law and are subject to supervision and inspection by Chinese authorities.
After this failed to dampen the controversy, Haitian issued a second statement on Tuesday evening, in which it said that food additives are widely used in food manufacturing in countries around the world, and that each country has clear regulatory standards regarding food additives.
“It is a misunderstanding to simply think that there are fewer food additives in foreign products, or to think that products with additives are not good,” the company said.
The company has received support from Chinese health professionals. Chen Qiao, deputy chief physician of the nutrition department at the Third Medical Center of the PLA General Hospital, told the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Health Times on Monday that food additives help improve the taste, color, and shelf life of food products.
Yet food additives have become a source of public concern in recent years, driven by Chinese consumers’ growing focus on health and nutrition. Haitian is far from the first company to become embroiled in a scandal over product ingredients.
Last August, the global consumer goods giant Unilever faced intense backlash in China, after the company was accused of using different ingredients in the Chinese and overseas versions of its Magnum ice creams.
In the European market, the main ingredient used in its ice creams is milk, while Magnums in China allegedly contain a higher volume of margarine cream and milk powder, netizens claimed.
Unilever later admitted that it does use different recipes in different markets, though its “overall formula system” is the same. Experts say the differences may be based on cost considerations.
Haitian itself has launched a number of zero-additive products in China, and several of these are even cheaper than the ones containing additives.
In Shanghai, consumers appear to be uncertain how worried they should be about the scandal. One local resident, Ma Jiyuan, told Sixth Tone that he wasn’t anxious about companies’ alleged “double standards,” as the products are safe and in line with China’s national standards.
“But the national standards should be the bottom line, and manufacturers should have higher requirements for themselves,” he added.
One local mother, surnamed Zhou, said she had taken her teenage daughter to the supermarket to check the ingredients of various products after hearing about the story.
“We didn’t have a concept of food additives before — we just trusted old brands and imported products,” said Zhou. “But I hope my child will develop the habit of looking at the ingredients before purchasing from an early age.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A bottle of the Chinese version of Haitian’s soy sauce. IC)