When WiC first saw gutter oil being collected, your reporter thought that the man had been sent by the local authorities to unblock a troublesome drain.
But there was something about his behaviour – and the fact that he was working alone and late at night – that made for doubt.
Sure enough, when he produced a bamboo pole fitted with a large metal ladle and plunged it down into the sewer, his purpose became gut-wrenchingly clear.
He was ‘harvesting’ second-hand kitchen oil from a nearby restaurant.
There was no way of knowing what the man intended to do with his oil once he cycled off into the night. But some 10% of the 22 million tonnes of edible oils used in Chinese kitchens every year is said to be crudely recycled from ‘the gutter’ and sold for cooking purposes once again (see WiC123).
It’s a stomach-turning thought: as you lift your chopsticks, you wonder if the restaurant cooked your beef in black bean sauce with oil dredged from a drain. Worse still, scientists say that gutter oil also contains high levels of carcinogens and a fungus called aflatoxin, which can contribute to risks of liver cancer.
Anger over the oil, known as ‘digouyou’ in Chinese, reached fever pitch last year after a string of other food scandals. Pork made to look like beef, fake eggs and even steamed buns filled with shredded cardboard left many people wondering what they could safely eat in China these days. And to top it all they were realising that they couldn’t even trust the fat that their food was being fried in. (For more on the topic, see WiC123).
But stopping the production of gutter oil is proving a challenge for China’s food safety officials. They have yet to devise a conclusive test for tracking usage of recycled oil. Used kitchen oil can also be sold legitimately as a constiuent of animal feed or as fuel for vehicles, so just collecting the stuff is not a crime in itself.
Instead, the regulators have opted to introduce the death penalty as a deterrent, in a technique borrowed from other food safety campaigns.
Xinhua announced the legal “notice” last week.
But if the government was expecting support for its big response, it was not universally forthcoming.
Some netizens did applaud the decision, as did state media outlets such as the Global Times, which predicted that the threat of capital punishment would have “a knock-on effect in all areas of food safety” and “improve social unity”.
But others were more circumspect. “Of course I hate gutter oil, but I’d like to know more about the legal basis for this ‘notice’ which claims people’s lives?” Suiyueruge wrote on his Sina Weibo account.
Perhaps contributing to the public’s reticence is the case of Wu Ying, a young entrepreneur from the coastal province of Zhejiang who many feel has been unfairly sentenced to death for illegal fundraising (see WiC138). The authorities have been criticised for pushing for the death penalty rather than looking at the broader range of factors that have made private lending such a widespread problem.
Similarly, several netizens have pointed out there is a lot more the government could do to solve the gutter oil issue without resorting to “killing the chicken to warn the monkey” (a Chinese expression for ‘setting an example’).
An op-ed on Hubei province’s official news portal cnhubei.com said that people would risk their lives no matter how draconian the punishment unless the monetary incentives for making gutter oil were taken away.
It also suggested that the authorities promote greater demand for biofuel (as a substitute market for second-hand oil), encourage the public to improve their diet (by eating less oily food) and come up with a fail-safe test for gutter oil itself (to make detection easier).
“Capital punishment is not an effective means of controlling crime. Only the improvement of the existing regulatory system will solve the problem,” the editorial warned.
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