In one of the more bizarre and effective viral hoaxes in recent memory, China has been forced to deny that it marinated human flesh, packaged the dead bodies as canned corned beef, and then sold the product to people in Zambia, a landlocked country in Southern Africa.

According to the Daily Mail, the rumors were first circulated on social media, but were given an air of legitimacy after a newspaper in Zambia claimed to quote sources from inside Chinese meat factories. The photos—which were later revealed to be taken from a 2012 ad campaign for the video game Resident Evil 6—depict skinned human bodies lying on gurneys, and the “sources” told the Zambia news outlet that the idea came after China ran out of room to dispose of its dead.

“Today a local tabloid newspaper is openly spreading a rumour, claiming that the Chinese use human meat to make corned beef and sell it to Africa,” Yang Youming, the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, told Xinhua News Agency, China’s official press organization. “This is completely a malicious slandering and vilification which is absolutely unacceptable to us. We hereby express our utmost anger and the strongest condemnation over such an act.”

The news reports also claimed that China saved its high-quality meat for more wealthy countries, while serving human flesh to poorer regions. After Youming called for an investigation into the allegations, Zambia’s deputy defence minister, Christopher Mulenga, was forced to issue a public apology.

“The government of Zambia regrets the incident in view of the warm relations that exist between Zambia and China,’ he said, according to Xinhua News Agency. “We shall make sure that relevant government authorities will take up the investigations and give a comprehensive statement.”

While the hoax is outrageous and implausible, the story may point to larger issues in China and Zambia. Relations between the two countries have long been strained, and for years, Zambian workers have claimed abuse in Chinese mines. In 2005, roughly 50 workers were killed at a Chinese-owned explosives plant, and the following year at least five workers were shot during a riot at a mine in Chambishi.

Food safety has also been an ongoing issue in China. Last year, 100,000 tons—and roughly half a billion dollars' worth—of smuggled food was seized in the country, with some of the contraband dating back to the 1970s

[via Daily Mail]