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Exclusive: China meat supplier faced claims last year over unethical work practices

By Kazunori Takada

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Shanghai Husi Food, the U.S.-owned Chinese food supplier at the center of a meat safety scandal, won a court case earlier this year against a former quality control officer whose claims included that he was made to forge meat production dates.

Wang Donglai, who worked at Shanghai Husi Food from 2007 to 2013, sought around 38,000 yuan ($6,100) in compensation for damage to his health from exposure to chlorine used as a cleaning agent by the meat processor. He also sought to terminate his contract at Shanghai Husi, claiming he was forced to work overtime and made to do "unethical work" that violated food safety laws, court documents showed.

At his hearing last October, Wang said he was unwilling to illegally forge dates at the plant, adding that he repeatedly urged his employer to change a practice which he said violated food safety laws and hurt consumer interests, according to court documents seen by Reuters. He said Shanghai Husi, which is owned by privately-held Illinois-based OSI Group, ignored his pleas.

Wang could not be reached for comment. His lawyer in the case declined to comment.

The Shanghai Jiading District Court ruled against Wang in January, saying his health was normal based on records provided by his employer. The judge dismissed Wang's claims about forced overtime, and dismissed the claims over forged production dates due to lack of evidence, the court papers showed.

Xia Yugang, a lawyer who represented Shanghai Husi in the case, said it was an individual labor dispute rather than a food safety issue. Xia, who no longer represents Shanghai Husi, said he did not know if the company ever followed up on Wang's allegations. "I believe Husi has sufficiently learned its lesson (from the current scandal) and if it wants to survive it certainly needs to improve its standards," he told Reuters.

TV DOCUMENTARY

Wang's allegations of tampering with food production dates echo those made in a Chinese undercover TV documentary on Sunday that showed staff at Shanghai Husi Food plant mixing old meat with fresh produce and re-using meat picked up from the floor.

In the Dragon TV film, staff at Shanghai Husi said they kept two record books related to food products, one of which was doctored to be shown to anyone who came to audit the plant.

Some former staff at the facility told Reuters this week that oversight at the plant was lax, though workers at another OSI unit in northern China said management and safety rules were strict.

Several foreign fast-food brands, including McDonald's Corp, have pulled Shanghai Husi products from their outlets in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Yum Brands Inc, which owns the KFC and Pizza Hut chains, has severed its ties with OSI China.

Shanghai police have detained five people, including the head of Shanghai Husi Food and its current quality control manager. OSI has apologized to its Chinese consumers, calling what happened at the Shanghai plant "completely unacceptable."

An official at OSI (China) Holding Co Ltd told Reuters late on Thursday: "No comment on anything related to Shanghai Husi now. We are waiting for the result of the investigation. As for this case, I don't know and I don't know who knows."

China's food regulator has said it has visited close to 600 restaurants, businesses and food distributors as part of those investigations.

Food safety is a sensitive issue in China, which was hit by a deadly dairy scandal in 2008. KFC saw its sales dip after another food safety scare in late 2012, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc came under fire this year over tainted meat products.

($1 = 6.1924 Chinese Yuan)

(Additional reporting by Adam Jourdan, Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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