Food industry ailing from consumer blackmail

Staff Reporter

A California woman in 2005 claimed that she bit into a human finger while eating a bowl of Wendy's chili. One year later, a Virginia woman alleged that she found a dead mouse in her vegetable soup from Cracker Barrel. These infamous cases in the U.S. immediately created a stir, but both turned out to be hoaxes landing the scammers in jail.

Domestic food industry sources say such extreme fraud cases no longer seem distant to them, as the recent food safety scare here has sparked a sudden hike in the number of consumer blackmailers.

Dubbed "black consumers," these money seekers pressure food manufacturers for cash, in return for "keeping silent" about products they claim are contaminated.

Corporate officials say although customers' claims often lack evidence and reasoning, they would rather cough up money than deal with the heavy risk of hurting their brand image.

"Just one complaint can topple an entire company," said Hyun Soo-hwang, a crisis management consultant at a global advertising agency, as she exemplified the latest incidents that dealt blows to some of the country's largest foodstuff makers.

Nongshim's "Saewookkang," arguably South Koreans' favorite snack, was embroiled in a case in mid-March in which a consumer found a mouse head in a shrimp chip package. A few days later, another consumer filed a complaint that Dongwon F&B canned tuna contained a knife blade.

Although both cases were confirmed, they triggered a series of false claims.

The Chungbuk Provincial Police Agency last week sought an arrest warrant for a 38-year-old man, identified as Park, for demanding 100 million won from a drink manufacturer.

Park claimed that he found a piece of plastic in the maker's drink and threatened company officials that he would tell the press if not compensated. Police, however, found that Park had lied.

Similar cases became more common recently, according to industry insiders.

"Clearly, there are consumers who are eyeing the chance to rip off food makers," said a marketing official of Haitai Confectionery. "We don't have many options when faced with people going after us."

Restaurant chains say they are also in the same situation.

"There's no point in fighting with upset diners because that only puts us at a disadvantage," said Ko Young-ran, a store manager at Kraze Burger, a popular fast food chain.

Hyun, the consultant, says that companies should involve a mediator instead of dealing directly with consumers.

"Trying to take care of things under the table isn't wise," she said.

However, corporate officials say local circumstances, such as lopsided media coverage and legal guidelines, force them to take a quiet approach to minimize any negative impacts.