I’ve been quite amused by the latest Chinese media frenzy surrounding Unilever’s (London: UL) Lipton tea brand, which looks more like a tempest in a teapot than a real scandal. Still, this latest brouhaha does underscore the negative publicity that both foreign and domestic consumer brands face from an increasingly aggressive Chinese media that seems determined to uncover the latest food safety scandal. Let’s take a look at the actual facts, or at least my understanding of them, and readers can decide for themselves what to believe. The case stems from a Greenpeace report saying it found unsafe levels of some pesticide residues in 4 Lipton teabags it selected randomly for testing. (English article) Greenpeace added the “unsafe” definition it used was based on European standards that are stricter than Chinese, and I have no doubt that it knew that part of the message would be largely ignored by local media looking for the latest food safety scandal, in a country where such scandals have become quite common these days. The latest such scandal has seen several capsule makers shut down after media reported they were using industrial gelatin instead of edible consumer grade product. While that kind of scandal is certainly very real, this Lipton story — and several others recently surrounding big foreign names like KFC (NYSE: YUM), WalMart (NYSE: WMT) and Carrefour (Paris: CA) — are far less serious and more often involve mislabeling or other misleading advertising issues rather than actual food safety. So let’s get back to the Lipton story, which saw Chinese health officials themselves come out and say that Lipton’s tea bags were in compliance with Chinese health standards, which Greenpeace no doubt already knew when it issued its original report. Not to be deterred, however, overzealous reporters at the official Xinhua news agency put out their own report after interviewing some tea farmers, who said they did actually spray pesticides on their tea plants even after the health officials said the residue was carried by the wind from other crops. What’s more, Xinhua and other reports also criticized Lipton for using inferior grade tea in its tea bags. Now wait a minute — I thought this was a story about dangerous pesticides, not about the use of lower quality tea, which should come as a surprise to no one since Lipton isn’t really known as a premium product. At the end of the day, it looks to me like Lipton and Unilever have done nothing really wrong in this case, and that Greenpeace — which does good work in general — knowingly took advantage of the sensitivity about food safety to issue its misleading report. While the story is a bit humorous in my view, I’m sure Lipton is hardly happy as it’s probably losing lots of sales due to the negative publicity. At the end of the day Lipton will obviously survive this pseudo-scandal, which once again underscores the very real dangers that both foreign and domestic consumer brands face from an overzealous Chinese media eager to report the latest food safety scandals.
Bottom line: Lipton has become the latest victim of a pseudo food safety scandal promulgated by an overzealous Chinese media eager to uncover such negative news.
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