In Hotpot restaurants in China, most of the ingredients are relatively cheap. Customers dip pieces of raw meat and vegetables in a large bowl of boiling broth until everything is boiling and bubbling on the surface.
For a chain of Chinese restaurants, however, an item found by a customer in one of its outlets has proven particularly costly: a rat.
A video of a small dead, boiled, gelatinous rat with its stunned arms outstretched, taken from a bucket of bubbling broth, has shocked China and caused the actions of a popular chain of restaurants to plummet.
The rat was found last week at one of the chain's branches, Xiabu Xiabu, in Weifang, a city in the eastern province of Shandong. A local newspaper reported the incident on Friday and video footage of the customer who chose the rat with the chopsticks circulating on Chinese social networks throughout the weekend was filmed.
At the close of the session on Tuesday, the shares of the chain's parent company, Xiabuxiabu Catering Management, had fallen almost 12.5 percent and at one point they fell to their lowest level in almost a year. In total, the discovery of the rat had eliminated approximately $ 190 million of the company's market value, which is publicly traded in Hong Kong. The company's stock recovered a little on Wednesday, gaining around three percent.
The rat appeared when Hotpot has been enjoying something of a moment in China. Traditionally eaten as a family meal in winter, the hotpot is a national favorite, and the chains that sell it are growing in popularity. Xiabu Xiabu and one of its rivals, Haidilao, have reported an increase in sales and a growing restaurant network.
The kitchen configuration is similar to fondue, with customers sitting around a table centered on a large bowl of simmering broth, which adds flavor to the ingredients and can concentrate to the point of being opaque.
It was under such circumstances that the rat was dredged from a red hot broth.
Xiabu Xiabu initially issued a statement on Saturday night saying she had "ruled out the possibility that an unhygienic environment caused the rat to appear," but that statement was later dropped.
A representative of the company, Catherine Gao, said later that the chain was cooperating with the authorities.
"We have established a working group to carry out an in-depth investigation into this incident, and we will also invite third-party authorities to help us clarify the truth," he wrote in an email. Ms. Gao said that the chain had always been concerned about the quality and safety of their food.
The market supervision office, an official watchdog organization, in Weifang ordered the Xiabu Xiabu branch to suspend its services to "improve". In a statement posted on the Chinese message platform WeChat on Sunday, the office said that although it found no rats, the restaurant had committed infractions related to standing water and buying food from unlicensed suppliers.
Although the hotpot has gained popularity in recent years, customers across China have complained about the questionable hygienic standards in hotpot chains, particularly in restaurants that reuse hotpot broth with new customers.