“Perhaps they were using liquid nitrogen to keep the food fresh,” said another.

The spray turned out to be carcinogenic paint, according to the results of an inspection by the local arm of the State Administration for Market Regulation Market Supervision Administration.

Video footage captured a member of restaurant staff spraying the paint on utensils. Photo: Weibo

Three cans labelled “high-grade spray paint” were found in the restaurant. The product that is typically used on steel and mirrors, according to Taobao.

Its main component is acrylic acid, classified as a Group 3 carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Taobao is the largest e-commerce platform in China and is operated by the Alibaba Group, owner of the South China Morning Post.

The owner of the restaurant explained that the staff sprayed skewer sticks to differentiate between promotional giveaways and regular sales.

Chinese barbecue restaurants typically bill customers based on the number of skewers used during the meal, but online observers argued against the use of spray paint as price tags, noting that some restaurants cut sticks into different shapes instead.

“I must offer a sincere apology to our customers for the spraying incident,” the restaurant owner said in a Douyin video, before shifting blame to a “new employee”, claiming the individual had bought the paint independently.

“Previously, we took protective measures when spraying, but this time there was a lapse in management,” the owner said, adding that the employee had been dismissed.

The painted skewers had not been cooked or distributed to the market, a May 22 report by the State Administration for Market Regulation Market Supervision Administration.

However, the public has remained sceptical.

“Could it be that the giveaway meat was not fresh, hence the need to mark it?” one online observer asked.

“The employee bought the spray paint with his own money? That is ridiculous. It must have been at the behest of the boss,” said another.

The barbecue restaurant has since been closed by the authorities.

The paint has been classified a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Photo: Weibo

Barbecuing plays a vital role in Chinese cuisine and culture. The food is enjoyed for its distinctive flavour, and the activity is a popular, egalitarian form of socialising.

According to a report by Guotai Junan Securities, Chinese barbecue is second-only to hotpot as a preferred late-night dining option.

The worth of the Chinese barbecue market is projected to reach nearly 400 billion yuan (US$55 billion) by 2026, according to a report by China Daily.

Over the years, the Chinese government has issued notices to eliminate food safety risks associated with barbecuing.

“The strictest standards, the most rigorous regulations, the severest punishments, and the most serious accountability must be enforced to address food safety issues,” the central government said in March 2024.