SEOUL/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Major fast-food chains in South Korea and Hong Kong have pulled chicken, beef and pork off their menus as they scramble to reassure customers about food safety as Brazil's meat scandal crisis intensifies.
The drastic steps by Burger King and Mom's Touch in South Korea, and Hong Kong's top fast food chain Cafe de Coral <0341.HK> are aimed at avoiding a customer backlash after Brazilian police accused inspectors in the world's biggest exporter of beef and poultry of taking bribes to allow sales of rotten and salmonella-tainted meats.
The chains are seeking to restore the confidence of consumers skeptical of food producers, retailers and restaurants after a series of food scares in Asia involving tainted products from baby formula to cooking oil.
Removing the menu items will add to plummeting demand for meat, with poultry particularly hard hit this year by the global spread of the deadly bird flu virus, and potentially damage Brazil's massive meatpacking industry.
China and Hong Kong are the top two importers of Brazilian meats, last year buying nearly one-third of the $14 billion worth of meat that Latin America's largest economy exported.
In South Korea, Mom's Touch, a fried chicken and fast food franchise, on Wednesday stopped selling chicken nuggets at its 1,000 stores even after the government lifted a ban of chicken meat from Brazil's BRF SA <BRFS3.SA>, the world's largest poultry exporter, a day earlier.
South Korea ended the ban after just one day after Brazil assured Seoul that shipments did not contain tainted products.
Even so, the fear of a consumer backlash forced Mom's Touch to take the drastic steps after retailers removed Brazilian meat from their shelves, said Heo Jun-gyu, a company spokesman.
"It's dealing a blow to small-and-medium-sized companies like us. It felt like we might be stigmatized if we didn't follow the suit," he said.
The chain uses BRF chicken for its nuggets and meat from Brazil's third-largest pork and poultry processor Aurora Alimentos for its chicken burger patty.
Burger King Korea stopped selling their Crunch Chicken, which uses both domestic and Brazilian meat, due to consumer fears, a company spokeswoman said.
"We are not sure for the moment when we will start selling it again and whether we will replace it with a new menu," she said.
In Hong Kong, Cafe de Coral wiped some of its top-selling items - baked pork chops with fried rice, grilled chicken and wings - off its menu, to reassure customers. It did not say if it uses Brazilian meat.
China on Thursday urged Brazil to hand out harsh punishments to those involved in the tainted meat scandal, but offered no time frame for lifting a ban on imports from the South American country.
Top Chinese retailers in the country removed Brazilian beef and poultry from their shelves.
Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland and South Africa have announced partial or all-out bans on Brazilian meat imports this week, following measures similar to those taken by China, the European Union and Chile.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Beijing as it tries to improve a poor record on food safety after scandals including decades-old "zombie" meat and recycled "gutter oil" for cooking.
(For a graphic on Brazil meat scandal, click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/BRAZIL-CORRUPTION-FOOD/010040820J5/BRAZIL-MEAT.jpg)
(Reporting by Jane Chang in SOEUL, Donny Kwok in HONG KONG and by the Beijing newsroom; Writing by Josephine Mason; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)