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Why China’s McDonald’s just ran out of hamburgers (and just about everything else)

An "Out of Stock" sticker is displayed on a McDonald's menu in Hong Kong. McDonald's restaurants across China have taken beef and chicken items off the menu after a supplier was accused of selling expired meat. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

BEIJING -- No more Big Macs. Forget the Quarter Pounder. There's not even a chicken nugget to be found in many McDonald's restaurants across China today.

The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country.

After discovering it may have been serving expired meat at as many as a quarter of its restaurants, McDonald's did not reveal how many restaurants went burger-less Monday. But it acknowledged that many had limited menus in northern and central China.

For a fast-food chain famous for its bustling efficiency, it was eerily quiet at lunchtime today during a visit to one of its branches in Beijing's Chaoyangmen District.

Waiters directed customers to a sad-looking menu in front of their counters showing in black and white two big hash browns. As one cashier explained it: “The only main dish we can provide is hash browns. Do you still want to order? ”

When told by a customer that all he wanted was a cup of coffee, the cashier seemed relieved and said,” Yes, that we have in stock.”

With little else to offer, according to accounts elsewhere in Beijing, other branches were running low on Filet-o-fishes, the closest thing remaining in the sandwich category.

The scandal began when Shanghai Husi Food Co. -- a subsidiary of Illinois-based OSI Group -- was exposed by local media to be selling expired meat. Since the company is a major supplier of chicken and beef, the scandal had far-reaching impact on almost all major foreign fast-food chains in China, including KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.

The Shanghai Food and Drug Administration confirmed last week that it found the company had relabeled and sold expired meat. The agency ordered purchasers to stop using all of its products.

The repackaged meat is just the latest in a tragically long, and at times quite bizarre, list of food scandals in China. In recent years, consumers here have endured: glow-in-the-dark meat, exploding watermelons, tainted baby formula, toxic bean sprouts, rat meat disguised as lamb skewers, and much, much more.

Last year, KFC's parent company, Yum! Brands Inc., suffered a similar disaster after a food scandal involving its former chicken supplier.

But its same-store sales in China fell 20 percent in the first quarter, less than analysts estimated, as its reputation rebounded.

On Monday, McDonald’s released its fourth statement on its official microblogging account in China. The company said it had stopped using all products provided by the accused supplier, and that some items would be limited while it looks for other suppliers.

"We will do everything we can to earn the trust back," the company said.

In an ironic twist, some online postings noted how the latest scandal has eerily echoed a recent catchphrase from McDonald's Web site advertisements: "Can you imagine living in a world without Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets or Happy Meals?”  

Unfortunately, not so hard to imagine anymore.

Customers enjoy their meal near an advertisement claiming to use 100 percent beef at a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing Tuesday, July 22, 2014. China's food safety agency on Tuesday announced a nationwide inspection of processing factories and meat suppliers used by a company accused of selling expired beef and chicken to McDonald's and KFC. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)


William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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