Where's the bull?

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There's quite a fuss in China these days over a product that is called niúròu sōng miànbāo 牛肉松面包 ("beef floss bread").  The problem is that there is no beef floss in the bread.  Even the ingredients state that whatever meat is in the bread is chicken.

For reports and photographs, see here and here.

False advertising?  Another case of fakery in the Chinese food industry?

When called to account, the company defended itself in two ingenious (but in the end not very convincing) ways.  Before explaining what the excuses were, we need to refresh our memory on the polysemy of niú 牛 in modern Chinese.  Aside from the usual "cow, bull, bovine", etc., there is another meaning that has been current in recent years, and it is undoubtedly the one that is uppermost in the minds of urban dwellers, many of whom have probably never seen a cow or bull and have little idea what they're like.

When people in China nowadays say niú 牛, they are using it adjectivally, and they mean essentially "awesome", but in more colorful and crude terms.  The origin of this usage is quite vulgar; for explanations, see here, here (with links to other posts in which the term is treated), and here.

All right, so when the manufacturer of the bread was reproached for marketing their bread as "beef floss bread" when it had no beef in it, they had two ready answers:

1. We weren't claiming that our bread has any beef in it.  You've got to parse the name differently.  It's not niúròu sōng miànbāo 牛肉松面包 ("beef floss bread"); it's niú ròusōng miànbāo 牛肉松面包 ("awesome [died meat] floss bread").  We were using niú 牛 as a yǔqì cí 语气词 ("modal [particle]") — that's an impressive sounding term, but not the correct grammatical part of speech.

2. Is there any bull in Red Bull?

As Liwei Jiao, who called this imbroglio to my attention, remarked, "It seems every Chinese food company needs to hire a language consultant!"


  1. cameron said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    IT would appear they have a point about how to parse it:

    肉鬆 is the equivalent of 肉松, is it not?

  2. K Chang said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    My reaction to that is 狡辯!(sly/unethical counterpoint!)

    As for is there any bull in Red Bull… There's quite a bit of taurine in Red Bull. And we all know what Taurine is named after. Trivia: taurine was first isolated from ox bile. (Ref: Wikipedia)

  3. AB said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

    re #2 Not sure red bull is a safe example...

  4. K Chang said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    @Cameron — traditional vs. simplified script. If you switch your article language pref from Mainland Simplified to Taiwan Regular you'll see the complicated script.

    @AB — "energy" drink always rely on some sort of stimulant. There were other lawsuits against other energy drink companies, but energy drinks is considered to be a higher class than soda pops, and thus higher profit margin, so every soft drink company also has energy drinks, and many new MLMs launch with energy drinks (and fail within years). One of the most recent was "Wake Up Now" (their drink was called "Thunder", I think), was even profiled by "This American Life" NPR podcast and sounds like a total commercial cult. Enough rambling from me.

  5. K. Chang said,

    June 2, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    FWIW, I asked someone who came here recently from China (within year or so), Cantonese / Toishanese speaker. Apparently 牛肉松 can simply be beef-flavored floss, and doesn't necessarily contain beef. Kinda akin to "beef ramen" is really "beef-flavored instant noodles", I guess.

  6. hawkice said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    Red Bull (红牛) has a pretty excellent name for an energy drink. Kind of amazing the name is of English origin.

  7. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    @hawkice — technically, no. The Thai drink Red Bull developed from was called Krating Daeng, which translates to red Gaur (Indian Bison)

  8. Alan Palmer said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    I have no knowledge of Chinese language or cuisine, and am puzzled by the phrase 'beef floss', which sounds odd to me. Does there exist chicken floss? Pork floss? Here in the UK the only food-related floss that comes to mind is candy floss – what Americans call 'cotton candy'.

    I suppose the action of flossing one's teeth could be described as 'food-related' though; I quite like the idea of a bread that cleans your teeth.

  9. Observation said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 9:11 am

    This seems oddly reminiscent of a similar incident which only happened a few weeks ago:


    绿豆饼 lǜdòubǐng (mung bean cakes) were discovered to contain no 绿豆 lǜdòu at all, and the spokesperson replied that 老婆饼 lǎopóbǐng (wife cakes) did not contain 老婆 lǎopó, either.

  10. K. Chang said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    @Alan Palmer — yes, you can make floss out of almost any meat, including fish (common used in Malaysia to accommodate Muslims) Think of it as "shredded jerky" and you're not too far off. It's like concentrated meat: supposedly you lose 80% of volume / weight through the manufacturing process. Supposedly in Burma they also use frog meat.

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%82%89%E9%AC%86 (in Chinese, of course)

  11. K. Chang said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    @Alan Palmer — though I prefer the English Wikipedia that listed it under "rousong"


    Floss is personally, a pretty horrible name for it. There is no direct translation that I can think of that sounds… appetizing. Maybe… "Meat Crumbs?" Though that gave the whole impression as if it's left overs and bits and whatnot.

  12. K. Chang said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    @Alan Palmer — I think I found the best explanation for "rousong"… Think of "pulled pork" (pork that's slow cooked that just pushing it with a fork will shred them, as in a pulled pork sandwich). Now imagine leaving the pulled pork in an oven and cook it until almost all moisture is gone (without burning it). That's basically what rousong is, and you can do it to almost any meat after you basically cook out all the collagen.

    It's great with Chinese rice porridge, as the rousong is usually cooked with soy sauce so it's already salty, and being dried only concentrated the flavor. Though traditionally it's made of pork, not beef.

  13. Wentao said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    This reminds of a similar argument of what 夫妻肺片 (fūqī fèi piàn) consists of… and also this: http://duanzijingxuan.com/i/98/
    The horror of seeing 儿童肉松 (children rousong) next to 猪肉松 (pork rousong) and 牛肉松 (beef rousong)!

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