People of China and Taiwan unite! A video about “gutter oil” is bringing consumers in both nations closer

“Mum, no more.”
“Mum, no more.”
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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The people of Taiwan and China are joining forces to fight a common enemy: food safety failures. The catalyst? A surprise viral video shot on a tour bus full of mainland tourists in Taiwan.

The video shows a female tour guide urging the passengers—one of whom apparently took the video—to boycott the products of Tingyi Cayman Islands Holding Corp., which makes the popular Master Kong sauces and instant noodles, and had profits of $400 million last year.

What does a Taiwanese tour guide leader have against China’s largest food and beverage maker? Its Taipei-based parent company, Ting Hsin International Group. Last year Taiwan’s health ministry found that Ting Hsin had for years been cutting costs by mixing lard meant for animal feed into the cooking-oil products (paywall) it sells to consumers.

The discovery caused an uproar among Taiwanese consumers. Wei Ying-chun, one of the key executives involved, was detained last October on charges of fraud and violating trust. Prosecutors sought a 30-year jail sentence (earlier this year he was released on bail).

In China fears quickly spread that food products sold by Ting Hsin’s local subsidiary Tingyi might be tainted as well. State-run media soothed such fears, reporting that authorities, in response to the scandal, checked and cleared the company’s products and manufacturing facilities.

But in the video, the tour guide leader claims Master Kong uses 56 times more “gutter oil” in China than in Taiwan, and that while the news has not been reported on the mainland, the Taiwanese people know all about it. She introduces passengers to a ”Destroy Ting Hsin” campaign that aims to boycott all the company’s products on the island.

The video, posted on the social media platform Sina Weibo, has over 120,000 shares as of Aug. 7. Celebrities and grassroots bloggers alike answered the call to boycott the company’s products. Cui Yongyuan, a former anchor of national broadcaster CCTV, shared the video with her followers and commented, ”All mainland people should know about this.”

Lee Kai-fu, a Taiwanese IT venture capitalist with over 50 million followers on Sina Weibo, also showed his support for a boycott. He deleted his post, however, after Tingyi released a statement this week denying the “gutter oil” described in the video is in any of its product.

But most of the online reactions reveal fear and suspicion directed toward China’s food companies and food-safety authorities. From the comments section (link in Chinese) below one news item about the scandal posted on Sina Weibo:

“We’ve been cheated by [Chinese] companies too many times.”

“People have lost confidence in mainland China’s food supervision department.”

In the video the tour leader asks, “Don’t you believe that if the two sides of the strait can make concreted efforts to pull down Master Kong, then food safety issues on the mainland will definitely be improved?”

While it remains to be seen how Tingyi sales will be affected, judging by the reaction to the video, she was on to something.