Martin Young
Martin Young

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.

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