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2018-12-17 12:27:57

A company contracted by a subsidiary of the world’s largest manufacturer of traditional Chinese medicine may have reused expired honey products, a TV news program in the eastern city of Nanjing reported Saturday.

Founded in 1669 and headquartered in Hong Kong, Beijing Tong Ren Tang Chinese Medicine Co. Ltd. has a reputation for being one of China’s most trusted and time-honored brands. The company was added to China’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2006 and named a global Brand of the Year at the World Branding Awards in London this fall. Its subsidiary, Beijing Tong Ren Tang Bee Industry Co. Ltd., deals in a variety of bee-derived products including honey, bee pollen, beeswax, and royal jelly.

A video clip from the news report dated Dec. 12 shows workers at Yancheng Jinfeng Food Technology Co. Ltd. — the Jiangsu-based company contracted by Tong Ren Tang Bee Industry — removing labels from honey products and dumping their viscous contents into plastic barrels. A source familiar with the matter tells Jiangsu TV that many of the tens of thousands of products had been returned by retailers in Beijing because they were going to expire or had already expired. While pure, properly stored honey has a long shelf life, Tong Ren Tang’s processed honey products have a sell-by period of 18 months.

A Yancheng Jinfeng employee can be seen telling the reporter that the recycled honey is used as food for the bees; however, the reporter later observes the barrels of honey being moved to an “ingredients” warehouse — a claim the company denied in an official statement on Sunday.

“We have ordered our subsidiary to immediately investigate these allegations,” Beijing Tong Ren Tang said in its statement, adding that if the subsidiary or the contracted company had broken the law, they would be held accountable and “dealt with seriously.” Also on Sunday, the food and drug administration of Beijing’s Daxing District announced that it would investigate Tong Ren Tang’s bee subsidiary, according to a report from Beijing Youth Daily.

Li Qinghua, a section chief at a market regulation administration in Yancheng, told Jiangsu TV that the way Yancheng Jinfeng had handled the products was “indeed irregular,” and that her administration had discovered similar misconduct at the factory on several occasions in the past. During an inspection in October, for example, officials found that Yancheng Jinfeng had changed production date labels from March of this year to June. Li said the company had called this a mistake; she does not mention in the TV report whether her market regulation administration has ever punished Yancheng Jinfeng for its infractions.

Since Jiangsu TV’s report on Saturday, the story has been widely covered by domestic media. On microblogging platform Weibo, many netizens have expressed disappointment that such a well-known brand would enlist the services of a company with seemingly such a brazen disregard for public health. “I always trusted Tong Ren Tang, but now I don’t know what’s safe anymore,” commented one Weibo user under a Jiangsu TV video clip. “Despite being a time-honored brand, it prioritizes profits above people’s lives,” wrote another. As of Monday evening, the hashtag “Tong Ren Tang recycled expired honey” had been viewed over 62 million times on Weibo.

In its statement, Beijing Tong Ren Tang said that “mismanagement” had been responsible for the recent mix-ups. “All of the relevant products ... have been withheld from the market,” the company wrote. “The case will be handled by market supervision authorities in accordance with the law.”

Beijing Tong Ren Tang said in its statement that its bee subsidiary had signed a contract with Yancheng Jinfeng in August 2016. Last year, Tong Ren Tang Bee Industry’s 280 million yuan ($40.6 million) in revenue accounted for around 2 percent of its parent company’s total revenue. At its lowest point on Monday, Beijing Tong Reng Tang’s share price had dropped by 5.9 percent on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: People walk past a Tong Ren Tang storefront in Beijing, Dec. 16, 2018. VCG)