How will the latest fermented vegetable scandal impact China’s instant noodle industry?

For some brands in China, the 315 Consumer Rights Day is doomsday. This year, it was particularly true for those in the food industry, which included several instant noodle brands, two of which are household names: Master Kong and Unif. The two brands found themselves in hot water after the appalling production environment at their fermented vegetable supplier Chaqi Group in Huarong county in Hunan was exposed on the 315 Gala.

The company with a business scope ranging from vegetable planting, raw material purchasing, and processing fermented vegetables stated on its website that all fermentation is processed in “indoor high-standard production tanks”. The statement was challenged as footage emerged which showed indoor facilities in the factory were only used to produce exported food. Whereas an “earth pit” at the nearby farmland is the actual birthplace of pickled vegetables which is used for instant noodles sold at home.

While the final product is piled up in the soil under a tent, workers were seen smoking while they were packaging, with their bare feet stepping on the sauerkraut. The scene disgusted many viewers and soon dragged brands sourcing fermented vegetables from it into the PR crisis.

Both Chaqi Group and the two instant noodle producers have apologised amid the scandal, and the latter two have promptly cut ties with the supplier while taking down products that include the concerned ingredients from shelves. Unif, went the extra mile by inviting 1,000 people including the press and ordinary consumers to its vegetable processing factory, according to the brand’s post on Weibo.

However, these series of measures are too late to save the brands’ reputation. As the scandal continues to dominate the hot search on China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, consumers are turning their back on one of the nation’s favourite instant noodle flavours – sour pickled cabbage, and both Master Kong and Unif saw an additional financial loss on the stock market.

As the sales of the most popular flavour are expected to plummet amidst the cloud around food safety, some have raised concern around the long-term impact on the instant noodle industry as a whole. However, this concern has seen some relief as another instant noodle maker, Bai Xiang has emerged a winner amid the scandal concerning their competitors.

The brand swiftly stated that it has never worked with Chaqi Group. This initial statement soon developed into a buying frenzy with consumers later discovering that one third of the brand’s employees are disabled people despite being a small market player, owning a market share of 7% as opposed to 46% at Master Kong in 2020. This inclusive practice has earned another brownie point for Bai Xiang. The hashtag regarding Bai Xiang’s inclusive workforce has drawn over 340 million views on Weibo as of 18 March.

The latest episode shows that the Chinese audience has become more aware of their rights as a consumer, which has been facilitated by closer scrutiny from domestic media. Brands, therefore, are expected to take more responsibility to safeguard the quality of their offering and their opt-in in social responsibility will, undoubtedly, further the brand’s value.  


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