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A lesson from the zoo biscuit in declining quality creep

Do you still remember the zoo biscuits of your childhood, as I do? These were special treats, handed out as rewards for good behaviour or on special occasions. There was a ritual around their consumption, first a delicate negotiation among siblings as to who got the lion and who the ostrich. Then there was the methodical, nibbled removal of the animal itself, then the coloured candy covering, and then the biscuit as a final reward. This was an event. These were not just ordinary biscuits, these were adventures.

I hadn’t seen zoo biscuits for many years until a friend on a visit brought a packet. My late-teen kids were still semi-enthused by them, but I was underwhelmed. I could barely make out a single animal from the design itself. The white confectionary had been slapped onto each biscuit with the apparent care of a plasterer about to go on strike. Each biscuit had the abstract quality of a Rorschach test. Was that meant to be a goose or Jacob Zuma’s head? Was this one a seal or, heaven forbid, a penis?

I’m not alone in my disappointment. A quick glance over the internet showed several images of zoo biscuits posted by disgruntled consumers. Quality has clearly been allowed to slide. Perhaps the person who does the final check at the factory was retrenched, or ran away and no one noticed? We angry consumers could accuse the manufacturers of misleading advertising. Or perhaps “zoo” biscuit as a description is still appropriate, but this time the “zoo” is a petri dish of three-legged amoebas.

Ian Wilson/flickr
Ian Wilson/flickr

Some other incidents have inspired this post. Our trusty microwave oven, at home in our kitchen for nearly 20 years, quietly beamed its last ray a while ago. We called our local home store for a replacement. “Don’t buy a cheap one,” our salesman told us, “spend money on a quality one because it may last as long as three years”. Three years??! replacing our 20-year-old unit? And this is good enough?

I blame China in part. Cheap goods come at a price. No manufacturer would build a microwave oven destined to last 20 years in this market — it would be a self-defeating exercise. I did giggle when I heard China’s moon rover Jade Rabbit had hopped to a stop on the moon with mechanical problems, as cheap exports do. Sorry, China, you have a reputation.

Nevertheless, we are a society where quality is playing a distant second to technology. It no longer matters whether your microwave oven, or your phone, or your car is expected to last you longer than your marriage, as long as it has all the bells and whistles for immediate gratification at the time of purchase.
Not only is there declining quality creep in products, but in the quality of our services too. A matriculation pass is not as valuable as it used to be, deservedly, seeing 30% is substantially less than 50%. The quality of our tertiary graduates is a concern. I am recently informed that even medical specialists and surgeons are being qualified in some training centres without the required skills, soon to be let loose on the public.

But back to zoo biscuits. I’m sure this change, as many other changes, did not come rapidly. Like the frog in a slowly heating kettle, the first three-legged ostrich on a biscuit was probably met with a managerial “Let’s see if anyone notices”. And no one did, or at least if they did they didn’t complain. And the disease spread through all the animals in the biscuit zoo, until no animal looked anything like it should have.

The alarming thing is that WE the consumers let this happen. WE did not complain, write letters, complain to management. Not just about the biscuits, but for everything, doctors, teachers, politicians, drivers, suppliers et al where the quality is just not what it used to be!

We have only ourselves to blame.


  • Martin Young is an ENT surgeon living an idyllic life in Knysna. He is a firm believer that "the unexamined life is not worth living", writes for a hobby and is happy to speak truth to power or @MartinYoung


  1. tokolosh tokolosh 20 June 2014

    Thank you for writing about this. I happen to see this a while ago and had the same thoughts when I opened a packet of Zoo cookies to show the kids what we use to eat when we were young. What a disappointment. Same goes for service and common consumer goods nowadays.

  2. bewilderbeast bewilderbeast 20 June 2014

    Price, price, price. Whenever I see China-bashing I hasten to point out: China can make anything you want, but you get what you pay for. SA buyers go to China with the mandate “Get them down to under R10” – this for goods that they have every intention of selling for R100 here. Think I’m exaggerating? You will fall flat on your back when you know the unbelievable MARGINS retailers demand. They will “BUT BUT BUT” you, but the bottom line is: What they sell you for R100 they are paying the Chinese factory R10 for.

  3. aim for the culprits aim for the culprits 20 June 2014

    we used to nibble off the edges first and then the sugary bits before eating the animal last.

  4. Baz Baz 21 June 2014

    Speaking of biscuits, there are a lot of cheap imitations on supermarket shelves.
    Good quality branded goods, unfortunately, come with an inflated price tag these days.
    Yes, I DO remember the ZOO biscuits but as a child was never encouraged to eat sweets, biscuits or any fizzy drink like, Coco Cola or any other branded name.
    It’s shocking that the so called Chinese inferior quality of goods that penetrated our local markets, whether I be cheap clothing for the masses or, in the food line as I previously mentioned in my opening statement.
    Another criteria, agree with you whole heartedly that South Africans ,in general are very complacent when it comes to shoddy service or returning a badly produced article or , in this case didn’t raise their voices when a item is taken off the market that the consumer has been purchasing for years. About time the consumer in South
    Africa got more resilient.

  5. paul Fanner paul Fanner 21 June 2014

    Before you scrap your old microwave, check the fuse. Ours is now 30 years old but it does have a habit of blowing the fuse every few years. It then just stops. Be aware that they use special fuses with a T in the number on the fuse, meaning its a slow-blow fuse. I was told it is also “sand-filled” as a safety measure. Something about not actually exploding, although when I used the wrong sort there was no problem except that it only lasted a day or two

  6. Cam Cameron Cam Cameron 21 June 2014

    A matriculation pass is not as valuable as it used to be, deservedly, seeing 30% is substantially less than 50%.

  7. Cam Cameron Cam Cameron 21 June 2014

    A matriculation pass is not as valuable as it used to be, deservedly, seeing 30% is substantially less than 50%.

    Except that it never was 50%. Ever. It was 950/2100 (45.2%) for university exemption and 720/1900 (37.8%) for an ordinary “Senior Certificate”.

  8. Andrew Andrew 22 June 2014

    Ha! Complain to a manager. Today managers are shielded by call centres, where lots are drawn on who will be the “manager” for the shift.

    Managers are faceless cowards when it comes to facing clients, but run to the front of the queue to get their ridiculous “performance” bonuses..

    Find a bank “manager” today? No where is the old trusted pillar of society who could write you a letter of reference

  9. Jeffrey Jones Jeffrey Jones 22 June 2014

    It’s been my experience with a couple of the big South African food retailers, that it matters not how high up the food chain you go to complain, they don’t give a damn, as nothing ever happens

  10. Stella Stella 22 June 2014

    OF COURSE one had to nibble oh-so-carefully around the edges first, leaving the animal till last, and being very careful not to break off any legs or tails before getting to the creature itself! But the deterioration in quality is not recent, even more so not due to any baleful Chinese influence. Already when my kids were small the animals were messy, although still recognisable, and that was 30-40 years ago. The pix you give are, however, truly shocking. Toemaar: today’s Sunday Times Home Weekly supplement (22 June) has an item on what seem to be the most delectable biscuit-lookalike cushions – Marie biscuits, Strawberry Whirls and – yes! – ZOO BISCUITS ! They direct you to – I’m going there now.

  11. Barbra Barbra 23 June 2014

    Ha! I have complained to Woolworths a few times, about the regular lack of stock in their Sandton store, and it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of difference. I fail to understand how in this day of computerised stock control, it is possible to have 700 pairs of black pantihose in size small, but not a single pair in size medium. Or 200 small bra’s but not a sinlgle matching panty in small. Where is the manager who consistently that fails to notice that they should order more of certain sizes? Why hasn’t he / she been fired yet?!

  12. DieSkim DieSkim 23 June 2014

    I bought a box of zoo cookies, but I will surely not buy one again.

  13. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 23 June 2014

    If you look at what percentage of your salary (back then) a microwave cost and what it costs now? Other than new cars (which are awful waste of money now), the cost of most things have gone down and so has their quality. Zoo biscuits used to be a special, special treat which (like fizzy drinks) you only got at birthday parties or equally auspicious occasions. They used to be relatively expensive. Now, they are relatively cheap. They also used to make about a tenth of the amount of Zoo biscuits compared with what they do now.

  14. gillian gillian 24 June 2014

    Inbreeding among the species?

  15. A Taylo A Taylo 25 June 2014

    On the same thread, Pick n Pay have dropped their hi protein loaf and substituted ‘Albany smooth wholegrain’. As the slices are quite square and straight on every side, it must have been baked in a closed tin, without room for the loaf to rise in baking. This keeps all the moisture inside the loaf instead of allowing some to disperse. The result – when making a toasted sandwich, first billows of steam from the toaster, a long time to brown the outside of the sandwich, and when apparently done, the inner surface of the bread was a soggy, disgusting, inedible mess. Going to have to bake my own.

  16. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 27 June 2014

    A Taylo

    That is consumer driven. Moms want sandwiches that fit neatly into lunch boxes so the baker makes closed pan loaves. Kids want the texture of white bread but mom wants them to have whole grain, so they soak the bran before incorporating it into the dough to get the soft texture (it is also a lovely way to increase the amount of bran you can add before the bread falls apart).



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