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Moon cake makers facing $2.5B bite

moon cakes
The scandal is keeping moon cakes on store shelves at a key time, the runup to the mid-autumn festival on October 1  

By CNN's Alex Frew McMillan

HONG KONG, China -- Life is getting sticky for China's moon cake makers. A tainted-food scandal threatens to take an almost $2.5 billion chunk out of sales this year.

That's a big bite out of a $6 billion industry. Customers have backed off the sticky, hefty little cakes after it transpired the desserts were being made using year-old filler.

State broadcaster China Central Television started the ball rolling with a report alleging a major moon cake maker, Nanjing Guanshengyuan, was using year-old ingredients.

That was enough to put some people off their food. But the story has spread, with a flurry of claims that the practice is common among the mainland's manufacturers.

China's State Quality and Quarantine Administration tried to buck up appetites, stating that 96 percent of the moon cakes on sale were up to standard.

Shoppers aren't eating that. The news has still sparked a public panic at exactly the wrong time.

Key part of mid-autumn festival

Moon cakes are a key part of the annual mid-autumn festival, the full-moon festival. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar - October 1 this year.

moon cake
Lovers moon over each other on the full-moon festival, but families gather to eat fruit, drink tea -- and gobble the cakes  

The celebration, the third big one on the Chinese calendar, is also known as the "Moon Cake Festival." It's one of the year's highlights for Chinese communities around the world.

Friends and relatives give each other moon cakes ahead of the event. The night of the festival, families gather to celebrate the moon - the symbol of femininity and fertility.

They light lanterns, drink tea, eat fruit, and of course scoff down plenty of moon cakes.

Gorged with the cakes, people lie on balconies, in parks, even in the street to get a glimpse of the moon.

A day for lovers

Lovers also make the mid-autumn festival their own, basking in the moonlight on something like Valentine's Day. The eighth or harvest moon is a favorite to get married under.

Secret recipes abound for moon cakes. They're the size of a hockey puck, but twice as thick.

The stodgy delicacies come with a variety of fillings. But the most traditional are stuffed full of a thick red-bean or lotus-seed paste, with a salted egg yolk at the center.

Eating one at a sitting is a challenge. But their popularity is even seen as an indicator of the economy.

If moon cakes fly off the shelves, times are good. If they sit there, it's time to sell those stocks and hunker down. Consumers aren't feeling flush with cash.

A moon-cake depression?

This year threatens to be a full-fledged moon cake depression.

Moon-cake sales can hit 40 billion-50 billion yuan ($4.8 billion to $6.0 billion), according to China Baking & Confectionery Industry Association figures.

But Chinese state media note they'll be lucky to hit 20 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) this year. At the most optimistic, that's a 20 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) gap.

China's moon cake makers had been hoping for a bumper year, because in 2001 the festival coincidentally falls on China's National Day.

The day after the moon cake festival is also a holiday, so people can recover from their moon cake gluttony. But this year, National Day leads into a week-long break in China.

Cooks in Nanning, China, baked the largest moon cake in history on August 19, according to Xinhua news agency. It weighed in at 3.9 tons.

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