Barrels of gutter oil, illegally recycled from kitchen waste, found at a hotpot restaurant in Sichuan in September. (Photo/CFP)
There are as many as 13 government montoring agencies but none of them is able to put an end to sales of gutter oil. Professor Zheng Fengtian and deputy dean of the Agricultural and Rural Development College at the People's University of China called it a classical case of Chinese "three monks, no water," a phrase that means "too many cooks spoils the soup."
The "digouyou" — gutter oil — problems in China have spawned a popular joke which stems from US Vice President Joe Biden's most recent visit to China when he won countless Chinese hearts by eating noodles at a Beijing street restaurant like the ordinary people.
In the joke, a patriotic internet surfer says Biden allegedly suffers from terrible diarrhea after his meal, and says he was a fool to think he was physically strong enough to eat the same food as Chinese who have undergone long-term training of eating recycled cooking oil recouped from restaurant kitchen waste.
This joke could have been taken purely as a prank showing Chinese people's distrust in Chinese food safety if it were not for the recent expose of a large-scale recycled cooking oil operation carried out by China's Ministry of Public Security.
An investigative report by the state-run Xinhua news agency noted that the recycled cooking oil industry is now bolstered by a highly sophisticated supply chain covering collection, refining, purifying, packaging, delivery, and marketing across China, which has been operating for more than 20 years.
Professor Zheng lamented that in spite of having 13 supervisory agencies, China is still unable to rid itself of recycled cooking oil problems because the agencies, like the three monks, have been evading their own duty and waiting for others to take proper actions.
The chaotic administration system has turned recycled cooking oil into a dynamite issue that government agencies are striving to keep a distance from, he said.
The pessimistic Zheng advised consumers to eat out less and cook more at home.
The gutter oil issue also came up for discussion at the China-US Conference on Food Safety Governance held at the School of Law, Tsinghua University, in Beijing in mid-September where many Chinese food and health experts blamed the nation's segmented and disintegrated food safety administration system.
They called for the establishment of national standards for cooking oil and channeling all supervisory authorities concerning foods and additives into one single oversight system so that certain administrators will be held accountable.
Yet still many are unwilling to express their doubts as to whether the issue actually exists.
Chen Junshi, chairman of the Ministry of Health's Food Health Standards Committee, stated at a separate international food safety forum earlier this year that gutter oil is simply a phantom menace as it would cost more money to eliminate its odor than it would to sell. There were others who hold similar views, with the issue showing the strong influence of interest groups in China.
A report by the State Council (Cabinet) in July 2010 clearly pointed out the "grave food safety concern over the appearance of gutter oil that has illegally ended up back on restuarant tables in many places."
An official in charge of quality control and inspection said it is a mission impossible to adequately supervise the more than 400,000 food processing enterprises throughout China. Up to 80% of such companies are engaged in cottage operations with less than 10 people each, he said.
Dr Robert Wallace, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and head of a food safety reform committee, pointed out at the Tsinghua University symposium that two-thirds of companies in the US are also in the category of small and medium enterprises.
He also suggested that Chinese authorities have a detailed calculation to compare the cost of improving food safety inspection to reduce diseases originating from food sources with huge medical costs later on.
It should be more cost effective for national finance to save huge medical expenses by imposing a more efficient food inspection system, he said.
Zheng Fengtian 鄭風田