Outrage in China after reports of fuel tankers transporting cooking oil


Investigations are underway in China following revelations that cooking oil has been transported in industrial fuel tankers that had previously carried fuel — without being cleaned in between.

The disclosures have ignited widespread anger among Chinese families concerned about the health risks of contaminated oil in a country that is far too familiar with food safety scandals.

They come just days before Chinese leader Xi Jinping convenes a high-level meeting of the Communist Party, where his “common prosperity” agenda will be the top priority and senior officials are expected to lay out a reform package to restore confidence in a sluggish economy.

Authorities have scrambled to control fallout from the revelations, with China’s cabinet this week ordering multiple departments to investigate, and local probes launching in Hebei province and Tianjin city, as similar reports continued to emerge across the country.

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The outrage began when state-run Beijing News last week reported the country’s largest state-run grain company, Sinograin, was transporting cooking oil in trucks also used for coal-derived fuel without washing the vehicles between shipments.

The detailed investigation, based on weeks of tracking tankers and interviewing drivers, found that the mixed use of trucks was an “open secret” in the industry and a way for cargo companies to cut costs.

Although third-party transportation providers were the main culprits, big cooking-oil manufacturers tended to look the other way, the article said, in part because there are no legally binding regulations banning the practice.

Panic ensued among shoppers looking for assurances that the oil they were using to stir-fry every day at home most commonly soybean oil wasn’t contaminated with carcinogens, heavy metals or other toxic substances.

The incident has left consumers helpless because it is hard to avoid using oil or to robustly test its quality, Zeng Qiuwen, head of the Guangzhou Food Industry Association, said in an interview.

Chinese consumers have no option but to buy oil — unless they return to old ways of making it themselves from fatty meat, he said.

Food safety and counterfeit-drug scandals have plagued China since the early 2000s, when the pursuit of unbridled economic growth and business opportunities often came with corner cutting and lax regulatory oversight.

In 2008, a major infant-formula manufacturer was exposed for adding melamine, a chemical that causes kidney stones, to milk powder to artificially increase the protein content. An investigation found that six children died and 300,000 got sick from drinking the tainted formula.

Cooking oil has been a particular concern since the early 2010s, when dozens of restaurants and street vendors were found to be trying to save money by scooping the dregs of used oil out of the garbage or gutter, processing it and then cooking with it again.

As the Chinese economy lost steam over the past decade, Xi has shifted from encouraging growth at all costs. Equally important, he has said, is providing people with a sense of security, be that from foreign threats or domestic malfeasance.

In an apparent effort to prevent the scandal from spiraling, China’s cabinet, the State Council, on Tuesday launched an interdepartmental investigation into transportation of edible oils, promising “severe punishments” for malpractice.

Official propaganda spoke of being on the public’s side, publishing strident critiques of the alleged misconduct and urging companies to do better. If confirmed by official probes, state broadcaster CCTV said, the practice would be “tantamount to poisoning.”

Official condemnation failed to stem the outcry. Online, people asked why there weren’t rules requiring industrial goods and consumer goods be transported in separate containers. Some announced plans to buy imported oil or make their own oil from scratch.

A flood of reports came in from across the country as other outlets and internet sleuths started investigating the tanker industry.

Using subscription cargo-tracking services, journalists tracked trucks moving between industrial clients and cooking-oil manufacturers, and they reported suspicious patterns to local authorities.

The State Council investigation will be thorough, but the high-level of pressure on the industry needs to become common or else the practice “will resurface sooner or later,” said Zeng, the head of the Guangzhou Food Industry Association.

Similar incidents of contaminated tankers have been reported in China before, including in 2005 when reporters found evidence of molasses being transported in tanks used to haul diesel — the tanks had not been cleaned.

But “people don’t seem to learn the lessons of these past incidents,” Zhu Yi, an academic at China Agricultural University, wrote on Phoenix Media, a Hong Kong-based website.

Testing alone won’t work, Zhu said. Part of the difficulty in detecting contamination is that hydrocarbons left over from fuel are often too small in quantity to show up in tests on edible oil.

Beijing News had found loopholes in the entire process of bulk edible-oil shipping, a collective lack of awareness and lax oversight — meaning there were all sorts of contaminant risks and the solution had to be “prevention not detection,” Zhu wrote.

A separate problem is that the competitive trucking industry is struggling to make money in a downturn. Tank cleaning takes four to five hours and can cost as much as $55, reported Caixin, a financial publication.

As anger mounted this week following the revelations, censors stepped in to tamp down discussions by deleting some articles on the topic and blocking related tags on social media. Online commentators defended the importance of public oversight and investigative journalism in exposing health and safety failures overlooked by officials.

Despite being state-run, Beijing News is known for in-depth reporting on social issues and its journalists regularly push the boundaries of censorship to expose wrongdoing among state-owned enterprises and local government.

While the original article has so far remained online, follow-up reporting by other outlets often disappeared soon after being published.

A tracking service being used by journalists to monitor trucks was taken offline on Wednesday, reported Yicai, a financial news outlet. The article was taken offline hours later.

“It was media that finally paid attention to the mess of tankers transporting cooking oil,” one user wrote on Weibo, the social media platform. “In recent years, as media’s ability to supervise seriously declined, more and more horrendous things have happened.”



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