Food

Is China transporting cooking oil in fuel trucks? The scandal over food safety explained – Firstpost

A customer looks at bottles of edible oil at a supermarket in Xiangfan, Hubei province January 24, 2008. The transportation of cooking oil in the same truck used to carry chemicals has caused uproar in the country. File Photo/Reuters

China’s new cooking oil scandal has sparked concerns about food safety. An uproar has erupted in the Asian country after a report of the alleged use of fuel tanker trucks to transport cooking oil came to light.

The undercover investigation by the state-backed daily Beijing News has revealed the practice was an “open secret” in the transport industry. The report published on July 2 has triggered outrage on Chinese social media.

Let’s understand what’s happening.

China’s cooking oil row

As per the Beijing News report, tank trucks that transport fuel and chemicals are also deployed to move edible cooking oil and syrup without cleaning them first.

The report named Chinese state-run food company Sinograin as one of those involved in the alleged practice. Hopefull Grain and Oil Group, another state player, was mentioned in the article.

A man cycles past storage facilities of China’s state grain stockpiler Sinograin near Tianjin port, China December 12, 2019. File Photo/Reuters

Speaking to Beijing News, several truck drivers said this was done to “save costs”, reported Nikkei Asia.

According to Business Insider, the Beijing News report found that a tank truck in Hebei province delivered chemicals to Qinhuangdao before arriving at Sanhe days later to get filled with soy oil.

The truckers alleged that in some cases drivers transported industrial wastewater before carrying edible oils.

Uproar in China

Last week’s report set off a huge furore on China’s social media platforms amid fears of possible food contamination.

As per the Nikkei Asia report, Yun Wuxin, a Beijing-based writer on biology and food engineering, said in an online post that such behaviour is a “serious violation of food safety operation regulations”, adding that once a container is used for non-food materials, it becomes “non-food grade.”

Getting “food grade” status again involves a complex process, including a strict investigation. “The operational cost is very high,” Yun said.

State-run media in China also commented on the scandal.

State broadcaster CCTV said the issue posed “extreme disregard” for people’s health and such malpractice could “consume the lives” of citizens.

Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily demanded a “thorough investigation and rectification”.

“To ensure food safety, we must consistently adhere to the strictest standards, the most rigorous oversight, and the most severe penalties,” it said in a commentary, according to South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of state tabloid Global Times, also called for a probe. “Sinograin is a powerful state-owned enterprise. I am not fully convinced that only Sinograin behaved this way while all other companies seem clean,” he reportedly said in a post on social media.

Probe on

China’s food safety commission will investigate the
cooking oil
scandal, state media reported on Tuesday (July 9).

Citing state broadcaster CCTV, Reuters reported that the State Council’s food safety commission will convene a special meeting with the state planning agency the National Development and Reform Commission, the State Administration of Grain and Reserves, and other ministries to probe the charges.

“Illegal enterprises and relevant responsible persons will be severely punished in accordance with the law and will not be tolerated,” CCTV said.

Cooking oil has come at the centre of food safety concerns in China again. File Photo/Reuters

As per a Bloomberg report, cooking oil produced by conglomerate China Grain Reserves Corporation has been removed from leading online stores including Taobao and JD.com amid the row.

Sinograin, which is at the centre of the row, said last week it had launched an investigation into the “mixed use of tank trucks.” It also said in the statement that it has blacklisted the tanker operator as a partner.

Several publicly listed companies have reportedly denied their supply chains were compromised “after internal investigations.”

China’s food safety woes

Using fuel tankers for other purposes is not new in China. The Asian giant has been battling food safety concerns for years now.

In fact, Chinese consumers are switching to foreign brands amid these worries.

Reports of mixing of edible oils with “hazardous chemicals” during transport surfaced in 2005, as well, as per Business Insider.

In 2008, baby formula was found to contain lethal amounts of the industrial chemical melamine, affecting 30 million (3 crore) children nationwide. The scandal had cost Beijing 2 billion yuan (Rs 22,95 crore) in compensation.

A similar report had emerged in 2010.

Almost a decade ago,
China
cracked down on restaurants reusing gutter oil and sewage grease.

Beijing has tried to increase food safety controls and convince importers that its products are safe.

In 2014, a regulation recommended transporting cooking oil in dedicated tanks. However, the guideline is not mandatory.

Speaking to Nikkei Asia, a Beijing-based political scientist on the condition of anonymity said that strict inspections could lead to regulatory changes but are unlikely to nip the problem in the bud.

“The issue of the fuel tankers is just a microcosm of the ‘involution’ problem among Chinese companies,” he said, using a Chinese jargon meaning increasing labour input does not result in a proportional rise in output.

“Like most industries, profit in the transportation sector is very low. If every company were to use dedicated tankers for transporting cooking oil, they would have to bear the cost of empty return trips, in addition to tank cleaning fees of over $100 [Rs 8,349]” every time. “This would potentially eliminate all the profit, and companies would not do that,” the political scientist said.

With input from agencies

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