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Chinese Wal-Mart stores ensnared in labelling dispute

Shoppers at a Wal-Mart store in Shanghai in this 2005 file photo.


In China's long and growing list of internal food safety scandals, not even U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart is immune.

Thirteen Wal-Mart stores in the southern city of Chongqing have been closed for 15 days by order of local authorities, who accuse them of mislabeling more than 63.5 tonnes of pork as organic and selling it with prices inflated over the course of two years.

The company has also been fined 3.65 million yuan ($575,000), or about 10 times the value of the mislabeled pork, according to a report by Xinhua news agency citing the director of the Chongqing Administration of Industry and Commerce.

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Yet the affair is hardly China's most frightening food safety scandal -- by all accounts, the pork, while mislabelled and misrepresented, posed no risk to human health -- prompting some speculation that the U.S. chain is facing extra scrutiny because of its foreign origins.

Internal Chinese politics may also be having an influence. Chongqing, China's largest city with a greater municipality population of about 30 million, is led by Bo Xilai, an old-style Communist as renowned for singing revolutionary songs and sending party slogans to his citizens by text message as he is for breaking apart the city's powerful criminal gangs with a series of high-profile convictions.

He is thought to be in the running to become one of the next members of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo during a once-a-decade leadership shuffle next year, leaving room for others to move up.

Cracking down on food safety violations has been named by the country's central government as a major priority, and a city government statement said Wal-Mart has been punished 21 times since its first Chongqing store opened in 2006, for infractions including selling expired food or false advertising.

A statement on Wal-Mart China's website, in English and Mandarin, says the closures are temporary, and they are co-operating fully with the investigation. Several Wal-Mart employees have also been detained by the local Public Security Bureau.

"Walmart is an important part of the Chongqing community, and we care deeply about the well being of the community with over 3,000 of our own associates living and working in Chongqing. We are deeply sorry for the inconvenience this may cause our customers and are even more determined to meet the service expectations they have of us," the statement read.

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