JOHANNESBURG – It started with two blurry photographs. They were taken from above, the figures in them are barely visible, but the outline of chicken pieces - including drumsticks - lying on the ground are impossible to miss.
The photographs, shared on Facebook and Twitter, show two people in red shirts, black trousers and black mesh hats seen cleaning pieces of chicken in a yard.
In one of them, a man directs a hose pipe at chicken pieces, littered on a discoloured concrete floor. Planks of wood and buckets lie within eyeshot.
University of Witwatersrand student Mfumo Bamuza shared the images on Facebook on the morning of Thursday, 7 May 2015. Two days later that post had been shared over 2,500 times.
“This is how they wash your meat,” he wrote of the two photographs, which Bamuza said were sourced from a resident at Clifton Heights apartment block in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
(Accommodation company South Point leases out apartments in the complex to students, hence Bamuza's mention of South Point in his post.)
The colourfully painted balconies of the apartment block are characteristic of Braamfontein, where many young people in need of meals-on-the-go rent accommodation.
The pictures of meat being cleaned, as Bamuzo put it, "on the ground!!!!!" took flight online and resulted in a public relations flap.
KFC's Braamfontein outlet stands on the corner of De Korte and Biccards streets, with multi-storey Clifton Heights standing at 92 De Korte Street in the city centre.
Some Clifton Heights apartments overlook the back entrances to fast food outlet's and shops, with their commercial fronts facing onto the road.
eNCA.com called KFC in Braamfontein on Thursday evening and spoke to the manager, asking him if he was aware of the photographs. He refused to comment.
Pressed on whether or not he recognised the employees in the image, the manager said he would only be able to answer the following day after consulting with head office.
By Friday, 8 May the corporate machinery of the fast food retailer was in action, demonstrated in the following sympathetic tweet:
Like you, we were really shocked to see the pictures posted from KFC Braamfontein, and at first couldn't believe what we were seeing.— KFC South Africa (@KFCSA) May 8, 2015
The company assured more than 46,000 people following their account on the social network that they were looking into the matter.
We’re aware of the incident in Braamfontein & take the preparation of our food seriously. We’re currently investigating this further.— KFC South Africa (@KFCSA) May 8, 2015
Doug Smart, managing director of KFC Africa, said the matter had been investigated and suggested the Braamfontein franchisee, and the relevant staff members had been reprimanded.
The outlet was closed for the day on Friday.
Smart wrote, "Now that we have confirmed that this chicken was never intended for sale to customers and at no time was any customer at risk, we will be re-opening."
Communicating via marketing agency Ogilvy a& Mather, Smart responded in writing to questions from eNCA.com. Here's what he had to say.
EB: Is KFC aware of the two photographs (attached below) that have been circulating on social media?
DS: Yes, KFC is aware of these photos and we have taken immediate action to address this.
EB: Can KFC confirm which branch the images derive from? According to reports it is the Braamfontein store and the images were captured yesterday. Please confirm.
DS: This is an isolated incident involving the Braamfontein restaurant only.
EB: Have the staff - purportedly from the KFC branch in Braamfontein - in the image been identified?
DS: Yes, the staff have been identified and this issue has been addressed.
EB: What actions have been taken since they were published on Facebook and Twitter?
DS: The Braamfontein store was closed as a precautionary measure during the investigation. Now that we have confirmed that this chicken was never intended for sale to customers and at no time was any customer at risk, we will be re-opening.
"We have already dealt very firmly with the franchisee and the responsible people involved," says KFC Africa manager Doug Smart.
EB: Is it commonplace for KFC staff to clean poultry using hose pipes, in an open yard, and on a concrete floor that has not been sterilised?
DS: Having looked into the circumstances at our Braamfontein store, we can confirm that this is an isolated incident involving this store only. However, we feel there are a number of facts which are important to clarify. Most importantly, this was chicken never intended for sale to customers and at no time was any customer at risk.
One of our quality checks is to ensure that chicken which is considered unsuitable is set aside and not served to customers. Our teams process this stock prior to it being collected for disposal, however, in this case the process followed for this was not at all in line with our standards. This has been addressed immediately.
KFC follows strict global food quality and safety processes in all our restaurants. All resources are in place to make sure that staff prepare food safely, and in line with our high standards. At no time would we compromise on our commitment to quality food.
EB: How do consumers know that the chicken in the photographs is not the chicken that ended up in their KFC boxes or burgers?
SM: We cannot emphasise strongly enough that this chicken was not ever intended for sale to customers, and at no time would we compromise on our commitment to quality food.
EB: What assurances can you give KFC consumers that this is a once-off occurrence and not a regular event at KFC outlets?
SM: We can confirm that this is an isolated incident involving this store only. KFC follows strict global food quality and safety processes in all our restaurants. All resources are in place to make sure that staff prepare food safely, and in line with our high standards.
Note: EB denotes eNCA.com reporter Erin Bates and DS denotes Doug Smart.
While the spokesperson for KFC has offered repeated assurances that "this is an isolated incident" and the chicken "was never intended for sale to customers" it may not prove assurance enough for the thousands of people who shared the startling photographs on social media.