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China vows to stop restaurant reuse of cooking oil

A chef takes a break after lunch hours at a restaurant in Beijing, China, Tuesday, July 20, 2010. China has ordered food safety officials nationwide to step up the fight against 'gutter oil' that is illegally skimmed from kitchen waste and resold, part of a government crackdown on foods tainted with potentially lethal substances A chef takes a break after lunch hours at a restaurant in Beijing, China, Tuesday, July 20, 2010. China has ordered food safety officials nationwide to step up the fight against "gutter oil" that is illegally skimmed from kitchen waste and resold, part of a government crackdown on foods tainted with potentially lethal substances (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
By Alexa Olesen
Associated Press Writer / July 20, 2010

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BEIJING—Chinese call it "gutter oil" -- a foul slop fished up from sewage drains or collected at restaurant back doors -- and it's being used widely in the country's eateries.

Recycled food oil is China's latest food-safety scandal that has worried consumers and brought fresh promises of government action.

China's Cabinet, the State Council, issued an order Monday that said the black-market trade posed "serious potential food safety risks." It vowed to crack down on "refined restaurant waste finding its way back to dinner tables through illegal channels."

Qin Xiong, a former chef who owns a small Sichuan-style restaurant in western Beijing, denies being involved in the trade but says he has seen barrels of food waste and oil being carted out of big restaurants and hotels in the capital nightly.

"The waste is usually held in filthy round metal barrels, each containing about 25 kilograms (55 pounds)," Qin said. The peddlers who collect it take it away on bicycle carts and are usually paid several hundred yuan (tens of dollars) a month for the service, he said. They filter the waste into slop for pigs and oil that is resold, Qin said.

While the government order did not specify a health risk, state media and industry experts said the recycled oil could have carcinogens and traces of aflatoxin, a potentially deadly mold.

"There's only a slim chance that you will be poisoned immediately afterwards if you eat this 'gutter oil,'" said Zheng Fengtian, a food safety expert at Renmin University in Beijing. "The biggest problem is that after eating this overcooked oil, people could -- though some don't -- develop cancer in 10 or 20 years."

So far, it's believed to be a purely domestic problem. China consumes more food oil than it can produce and imports the rest, so the recycled oil is unlikely to make its way overseas.

Media outrage over "gutter oil" compounds Chinese consumers' growing anger over Beijing's inability to police the food supply.

In recent years, consumers have been horrified by fish treated with cancer-causing antibiotics, eggs colored with industrial dye and fake liquor that can cause blindness or death. Milk and infant formula laced with the industrial chemical melamine killed six children and sickened 300,000 in 2008.

Under pressure from the public and its trade partners, China last year enacted a tough food safety law, promising harsh penalties for makers of tainted products.

Recycled oil is likely most widely used at the places where most Chinese eat -- hole-in-the-wall restaurants tucked into alleys or set up by the roadside that serve homestyle fare on Formica tables set with soy sauce and plastic-wrapped chopsticks. Particularly dangerous is hot pot -- a popular fondue-like dish where eaters dip meat, fish or vegetables into a vat of bubbling oil at the table.

Peter Leedham, managing director of the Suzhou office of the food testing company Eurofins Technology Service, said "gutter oil" was mainly found "at the bottom end of the market but with such frequency that it is something that's a great worry to the Chinese government at the moment."

The China Daily newspaper reported last November that authorities in Guangdong province had busted two large oil resellers. One was producing 10 tons per day and another had stored more than 32 tons of illegal oil. The official Xinhua News Agency reported earlier this month that Beijing's health inspectors had launched a weeklong crackdown on restaurants cooking with the resold fat drippings from the popular Peking Duck dish.

Zheng, the Renmin University professor, said there are no reliable statistics on the scope of the "gutter oil" trade. A study by a teacher and a group of students at Wuhan Polytechnic University in south China earlier this year concluded that recycled oil was being used to prepare 1 in 10 meals in China.

The professor who made the claim, He Dongping, refused to discuss his findings with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Zheng said the problem may not be widespread but that the public panic was understandable because the government has not been transparent enough about the problem.

"Had the government done an open investigation, then things might have been better," he said.

In its order, the State Council said inspectors would target edible oil trade fairs and wholesale markets. It called for inspections of oil being used at restaurants, school cafeterias, work canteens and kitchens at construction sites.

It said that businesses that use recycled oil would be forced to close temporarily or lose their business license. Meanwhile, peddlers who sell the oil could be criminally prosecuted, it said.

Marie-Paule Benassi, a food safety official with the European Union's delegation in China, said reused cooking oil would likely contain acrylamide, a carcinogenic chemical that forms naturally when starchy foods are baked or fried.

"Recycling oil is something that has been done in all families, but the more the oil is cooked the more it will contain some residues of food and all these carcinogenic particles," Benassi said.

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Associated Press researchers Yu Bing and Zhao Liang contributed to this report.

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