SHANGHAI - Shanghai's food safety watchdog is still investigating Yum! Brands Inc and its subsidiary KFC for a scandal involving antibiotics-tainted chicken, vowing severe punishment for any violations.
At a news conference in the city on Friday, Yan Zuqiang, director of the Shanghai Municipal Food Safety Commission Office, said it will honour its promise to make the investigation results public, but did not disclose details about the probe.
He declined to comment on the possible punishment Yum! may face if found to have used the tainted chicken supplied by a company in Shandong province in 2010 and 2011.
Legal experts said any punishment will be closely linked to possible damage the company might have caused to consumers' health, and whether the scandal involves negligence of duty that caused lax quality control or illegal activities in intentionally providing substandard products to consumers.
In the latest blow to Chinese consumers' confidence in food safety, the United States fast-food chain KFC was found to have concealed information that excessive amounts of antibiotics were found in eight batches of raw chicken samples taken from Shandong Liuhe Group.
On Jan 10, Yum! publicly apologised for what it called its inappropriate response to the Chinese government's investigation, admitting shortcomings in the company's self-checking process and a lack of internal communication.
The company destroyed raw-chicken products suspected of containing amantadine, a drug used as an antiviral and to treat Parkinson's disease, on Thursday, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.
But it is still not known how much chicken meat the fast-food chain bought from Shandong Liuhe or other problematic suppliers during this time, whether these products were substandard, and whether they had been processed and served in its restaurants.
Experts said the incident exposed faults in food safety supervision at large food-producing companies. The scandal was first reported by China Central Television on Dec 18, and the eight batches of tainted chicken meat were found in a test by a testing institution hired by the US company, rather than by tests initiated by food safety watchdogs.
Supervisory departments have been playing an insufficient role in the incident, said Li Shuguang, a food science professor at Fudan University.
But he was quick to add that it can be hard for law enforcers to conduct thorough examinations and prevent such violations at each of the 450,000 food-producing companies across China.
"You cannot simply place all your hopes on several officers who wear peaked caps and uniforms to find every violation at food companies during a short inspection," he said.
Timely correction of such violations relies more on the self-discipline of companies and public tip-offs, he said. Media supervision is also important, he added.
The food safety office said it will work out more useful ways to supervise large food companies in Shanghai, though it stressed the food producers should take the main responsibility for their products' quality.
The office said public efforts are needed to root out such problems and Shanghai has involved the public in inspections of food providers. The city has also taken the lead nationwide by setting up a hotline used solely to report food safety violations since last March.
A total of 168 whistle-blowers have been rewarded for their reports, official figures show, with one of them receiving the top cash award of 200,000 yuan (S$39,500).
"The KFC incident is one of the violations in the food safety sector, but it is not a major problem," said Yan, the food office's director.
He said overall food safety in Shanghai was managed in an orderly way in 2012, without any serious violations. A total of 215 suspects were held for being linked to food safety violations last year, up 19 per cent year-on-year, while Shanghai police handled 143 food safety-related offences, an increase of 79 per cent over the previous year.