China checks stores after deadly Carrefour stampede

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BEIJING, Nov 12 (Reuters) Chinese cities have ordered checks on supermarkets in the wake of a chaotic cooking oil promotion in a Carrefour store in which three people were trampled to death.

The dead were among hundreds of customers who crushed into one of the French retail giant stores in Chongqing, a sprawling southwestern city where giddy growth jostles with grinding hardship.

Managers lost control of the hundreds scrambling for discount cooking oil, a powerful lure for Chinese consumers juggling tight budgets and ballooning food prices, including those for the oil essential for home cooking.

''I rushed to the oil shelf with other people and grabbed four bottles,'' the official China Daily quoted one shopper as saying.

''Suddenly I was tripped over on the floor. Luckily I got hold of another person and escaped from being crashed.'' The English-language newspaper said a Carrefour executive has gone to Chongqing ''to cooperate with the local government in an investigation into the accident and compensation for the victims''.

The stampede injured 31 people who were ''recovering well'', the paper said.

Some people had begun to queue at 4 am (local time) for the five-litre oil bottles, which had been discounted by 11.5 yuan 1.5 dollars from their usual price of 51.4 yuan.

A spokesman for Carrefour's operations in China did not answer calls to his office today. Police in Chongqing would not say whether investigations of the accident could lead to criminal charges.

''This is a safety incident,'' said a police officer surnamed Liu. ''No conclusions have been reached yet.'' Carrefour and other foreign retailers seeking to spread into China can expect tougher scrutiny of their sales pitches and safety after officials vowed to crack down on dangers in malls and other public sites.

Chongqing issued an urgent order demanding ''an immediate and thorough investigation of fire prevention facilities, walkways, and the arrangement of product displays'', the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The Beijing Evening News said yesterday the national capital -- especially wary of any such tragedies as it prepares to welcome Olympic Games crowds -- had ordered a similar crackdown.

Carrefour has been expanding operations in China. It has 100 superstores in 37 Chinese cities. Other big retailers, including US giant Wal-Mart, have also been driving hard to win consumers in this rapidly growing and sometimes laxly regulated market.

Five customers were injured in a stampede in another Carrefour store in southwestern China in 2005, and in August this year officials shut one of its Beijing stores for three days after a promotion violated rules, the Beijing Evening News said.

But Chinese media commentators said many retailers cared too little for customers' safety.

''Looking at the lay-out of Chinese supermarkets, their entrances are too small, space is scant, and there are too few entrances,'' the Southern Metropolitan Daily said. ''All this presents a safety peril.'' Carrefour's China sales surged 53 per cent last year to 3.3 billion dollars, outpacing 30 per cent growth at Wal-Mart and a 14 per cent rise for China's overall retail market.

Last month, a cooking oil promotion in a Shanghai supermarket sparked a stampede that injured 15 people, the Beijing paper said.

REUTERS RJ RK1015

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