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Rotten Caterers

A food safety scandal at an exclusive international school in Shanghai has enraged parents who demanded tightened supervision on school cafeterias

By NewsChina Updated Dec.1

It was a basket of rotten tomatoes and moldy onions that sparked the furor among the parents of children at a private international school in Shanghai, according to an October report in the Xinmin Evening News. It immediately sparked renewed concern about food safety among parents of schoolchildren.  

SMIC Private School in Shanghai, founded in 2001 with over 2,000 international students from more than 20 countries, was ordered by the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration to drop its catering service provider after parents chanced upon the kitchen’s stomach-churning state.  

String of Complaints
On October 17, Feng Qi (pseudonym) was at work in her office when a picture came up on her WeChat account of a lunch at SMIC Private School, which consisted of just two steamed buns, a duck leg, a spoonful of vegetables and a carton of milk. The picture was taken and uploaded by a parent who visited the school. Feng saw immediately that the food in the picture was very different from the menu the school, where her child was a third-year pupil, had promised to parents. The social media group where the image was posted included 500 parents of elementary students enrolled at the school – all of whom paid tuition fees of 50,000 yuan (US$7,220) annually, and 24 yuan (US$3.5) per meal. Complaints started to pour in after the picture was posted.  

SMIC Private School quickly responded that the meal served that day was not standard, and the school promised to ask the catering service provider to offer better food. Two days later, however, new pictures emerged showing a meal of vegetables – consisting of carrot, corn and beans – an egg, a meat soup and rice, which again fueled the anger of parents.  

“The vegetables were frozen, there were no fresh vegetables at all,” Feng told NewsChina. 

At 11am on October 19, SMIC Private School sent an email to parents saying the school would organize an information session about the lunch menu at 3:30pm – four and a half hours before it was due to start. This prompted a new round of complaints from parents who questioned the sincerity of the school. 

Feng’s flexible work schedule allowed her to attend the meeting, which was held in a large classroom. School principal Zhu Ronglin, as well as the regional manager of the catering service provider – Shanghai Eurest Food Technologies Service Company – and a school cafeteria manager joined in the meeting. That day, parents immediately demanded the school had to change caterers.  

“The school principal replied that further discussions would be required by the school management authority before coming up with a well-balanced solution,” He Nuonuo (pseudonym), another parent who attended the meeting, told our reporter. “The principal hoped parents would wait a week, but some were agitated and refused.” 

“You’ve never been a leader, right? I already said we would tighten supervision, what else do you want?” Zhu abruptly responded, according to witnesses. “How about you give me a correction plan.” The principal’s words enraged parents who demanded to inspect the school kitchen themselves. 

Unhygienic Conditions
Around 4pm, Feng Qi and another parent inspected the kitchen after gaining permission from the principal and the catering service supplier. Feng checked the freezer first, and said she discovered boxes of pig skin and dried scallops that carried labels saying they had been opened on October 20 – in what appeared to be a clear fabrication given the inspection was on October 19. 

What’s more, she said she saw a large quantity of frozen vegetables and meat which made her feel uncomfortable. “We never eat this kind of [frozen] food because it is unhealthy,” she told our reporter. Feng then checked the dish-washing area, finding bowls in the kitchen that she said had dish-washing detergent residue on them. 

Feng then said she found that the expiration date on the packaging of some flavoring had been fabricated – the expiration date had been changed from June 4, 2018 to May 3, 2019. After that, she was astonished to see three baskets of rotten tomatoes and two baskets of moldy onions, she said. More parents followed, some bursting into tears at the sight of the spoiled vegetables. Several parents then called the police, who blocked off the kitchen when they arrived. Regulators and education authorities arrived soon after. 

At 7pm, the school organized another meeting with parents that ran until midnight, where a school board member showed up from Beijing with a solution. The solution consisted of three parts: The first was to cut ties with caterer Eurest. The second was that parents could provide food for their children, and the school would provide microwave ovens. The third was to surveil the kitchens and allow parents to take part in the search for a new caterer.  

Two days after the incident, Chinese social media ran hot with claims the kitchen staff at nearby Shanghai United International School were busy throwing away expired bread and chicken meat. The school had the same food provider as Shanghai SMIC. Eurest is wholly owned by the UK-based Compass Group, a global catering service provider. Established in 1941, Compass became a large-scale food service after several mergers and acquisitions, and entered the Chinese market in 1995. 

“When Compass Group first set foot in China, all its knives were color coded. Raw and cooked food materials were kept separate. At the time, Chinese catering service companies did not have such awareness of food safety,” a former Compass employee told NewsChina on condition of anonymity. 

A recent report on the Chinese catering market released by the Intelligence Research Group ranked Compass Group ninth among China’s top 10 large-scale catering service providers. According to a recent financial report on Compass Group, the Asian market accounted for only 16 percent of its revenue. 

In recent years, Eurest has regularly been reported for operational risks. In 2014, the enterprise was found to be in tax arrears. The company also had several labor contract disputes in 2013, 2014 and 2017. A report by the National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System, released on October 20, 2018 showed that the company was uncontactable at its registered addresses. Furthermore, the company’s branches in Shanghai’s Pudong and Changning Districts and the city of Changshu in Jiangsu Province had been shuttered. 

Joint Supervision 
After the rotten tomato incident, Shanghai Food and Drug Administration and Shanghai Municipal Education Commission conducted a joint investigation of each of the 28 cafeterias that used catering services provided by Eurest, finding that two had issues.  

A bottle of flavoring with a fake label was found in the canteen of SMIC-Shanda Private Kindergarten, and a bottle of expired flavoring and expired bread was discovered in the garbage bin outside the kitchen of Concordia International School Shanghai. The regulator found no issues with the other schools. The three schools implicated, including SMIC Private School, were told to stop using Eurest’s catering service and a further investigation into the company is now underway. 

On October 22, SMIC and Eurest each released statements apologizing. SMIC announced the school principal, director of general affairs, and cafeteria coordinator had all been removed from their posts. Eurest said it had established a working team and engaged a third party food safety company to conduct a thorough check of all its vendors, arguing that the problematic food materials had not been used and no child was found to have become ill.  

Several parents at Shanghai SMIC Private School told our reporter that the school partnered with Eurest in 2014 after it stopped using the catering service Sodexo, because parents were dissatisfied with its food quality. According to parent He Nuonuo, four catering service suppliers were involved in the bidding, but on the vote date, one of the bidders withdrew. More than 10 people voted, including teacher representatives, members of the school board, parent representatives and the moral education director. The school principal, general affairs head and canteen director did not attend. 

Eurest ultimately stood out. Since 2014, its food quality had been under the supervision of three parties: the internal food quality department of the company, the school, and parent representatives. The former employee of Eurest told NewsChina that the company had an independent department responsible for food quality – the Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Department, which conducts training and non-scheduled inspections at cafeterias. But in recent years, he said, the department had fewer and fewer inspections and less training – roughly once every three months. 

“Many cafeteria staff have a relatively low level of education and it is very hard for them to grasp food quality knowledge in training sessions held months apart,” he said. “Some cafeterias that have maintained a good relationship with HSE are even informed in advance of an inspection.” As for the quality of food, the purchasing department and the kitchen chief are held jointly accountable. 

He added that about 95 percent of the meat offered by Eurest was frozen, which made it easier to preserve and cheaper, and that it was less likely to have problems due to low-temperature sterilization. Parent representatives could check the hygiene conditions of cafeterias but were not allowed to enter kitchens. After the food safety scare, parent representatives were allowed to enter the kitchen to check the food quality. Supervision from the school was the last line of defense, and that line appears to have been broken. As of press time, SMIC Private School had failed to respond to requests for an interview.