Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chinese checkers

Everyone worries about our relations with Iran and North Korea, but interactions with the People’s Republic of China haven’t been the stuff of love songs lately, either, at least from the perspective of the restaurant industry.

On Sunday, a motion was introduced in the Communist nation’s legislature to evict a 7-year-old Starbucks from the Forbidden City, the jaw-dropping palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties when the Western world was still eating with its hands. Officials don’t think it’s right to have milk being steamed for a paper cup of cappuccino or tourists lining up for Frappucinos in a 600-year-old facility that’s unparalleled in its historic and cultural importance to the Chinese. What’s reverence for a cultural landmark compared with the imperative to peddle lattes and coffees wherever eyes may be bleary from jet lag or currency is waiting to be plucked from wallets?

Okay, maybe the officials have a point. But is it really a coincidence the Chinese government suddenly has a beef with the U.S. restaurant chain that has the largest presence over there? The Chinese media have reported that the nation’s health officials are investigating KFC’s use of talc as a filtering medium for the oil in its fryers. The press reports say the powder is being used in a way that could pose a health hazard, according to interpretations that were widely reported on U.S. internet sites this weekend.

Lost in translation was how the use of magnesium silicate, as it’s scientifically known, had roused concerns about KFC. Many of the domestic stories noted that McDonald’s also uses the compound as a filtering medium, and yet its operating procedures are not being examined.

And KFC issued a statement saying the Yum! Brands-owned operation welcomed the safety check and pledged full cooperation, according to U.S. news reports.

KFC has had a presence in China for decades, with 1,700 of its outlets now operating there. All of a sudden the government has a problem with the chicken chain, just because of concerns that an operational practice could potentially pose a health hazard?

Um, okay, maybe the officials have a point there, too.

Considered together, the situations are proof that the land-rush stage of international development is certifiably over for U.S. chains, and local control is going to be exerted far more forcefully for cultural considerations. The occasionally ugly American brand may have to get much prettier to keep international relations harmonious.

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