Gutter oil (Chinese: 地沟油; pinyin: dìgōu yóu, or 餿水油; sōushuǐ yóu) is a term used in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to describe illicit cooking oil which has been recycled from waste oil collected from sources such as restaurant fryers, grease traps, slaughterhouse waste and sewage from sewer drains.
Reprocessing of used cooking oil is often very rudimentary; techniques include filtration, boiling, refining, and the removal of some adulterants. It is then packaged and resold as a cheaper alternative to normal cooking oil. Another version of gutter oil uses discarded animal parts, animal fat and skins, internal organs, and expired or otherwise low-quality meat, which is then cooked in large vats in order to extract the oil. Used kitchen oil can be purchased for between $859 and $937 per ton, while the cleaned and refined product can sell for $1,560 per ton. Thus there is great economic incentive to produce and sell gutter oil.
It was estimated in 2011 that up to one in every ten lower-market restaurant meals consumed in China is prepared with gutter oil. This high prevalence is due to what Feng Ping of the China Meat Research Center has made clear: "The illegal oil shows no difference in appearance and indicators after refining and purification because the law breakers are skillful at coping with the established standards."
The first documented case of gutter oil in Taiwan was reported in 1985. In a subsequent investigation, 22 people were arrested for involvement in a recycling oil ring over 10 years based in Taipei. The worst offender was sentenced to 7 years in prison.
In September 2012, an ongoing investigation into the suspected use of gutter oil as a raw material in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry was revealed. A scandal involving 240 tons of gutter oil in Taiwan affecting hundreds of companies and thousands of eateries, some of which may have been exported overseas, broke in September 2014.
Production and distribution
The collected waste oil is sold to local workshops or small factories for cleaning and packaging. When sold to workshops it is often transported on the back of bicycles by peddlers who are paid a monthly wage; afterwards, the oil is held in 200-liter barrels at the workshops until it is processed. On other occasions the oil goes to industrial cooking oil refineries for further processing before it finally reaches its end purpose. The industrial oil refineries are usually legitimate producers that sell the processed oil for use in the chemical or energy industries. Gutter oil is perfectly suitable as a raw ingredient for producing soap, rubber, bio-fuel, and cosmetics. However, the refiners can also have other intentions as the prices attained by selling it as cooking oil are much higher than if it is sold to the chemical or energy industries.
There are few formal rules or protocols in place to prevent purchases from or sales to entities intending to use the oil for human consumption, so it is very easy for individuals or wholesalers to purchase oil from these industrial refineries and then resell the oil to restaurants or to end consumers. There have been some cases where the industrial oil refiner packaged the oil under a unique brand name and sold it as legitimate oil in retail outlets as opposed to just selling directly to restaurants. Some lower-market restaurants have long-term purchase agreements with oil recyclers for selling their used oil.
Low-end restaurants and street vendors are the biggest end users of gutter oil, as they operate with lower profit margins than bigger restaurants. Oil is one of the largest kitchen supply costs for restaurants, so obtaining cheaper oil can allow a marginal restaurant to reduce its overall expenses. Chinese food is generally heavily dependent on oil due to most foods being fried, so cheaper meal prices for many price-sensitive consumers are possible if gutter oil is used instead of virgin oil. The situation becomes more serious because it is hard to distinguish reprocessed gutter oil from legitimate oil. Bleach is used to transform gutter oil's dark color into a more natural-looking one, and alkali additives are used to neutralize the abnormal pH caused by high concentrations of animal fats.
Gutter oil has been shown to be quite toxic, and can cause diarrhea and abdominal pain. There are also reports that long-term consumption of the oil can lead to stomach and liver cancer as well as developmental disabilities in newborns and children. Testing of some samples of gutter oil has revealed traces of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), dangerous organic pollutants capable of causing cancer with long-term consumption. There is also potential for gutter oil to contain aflatoxins, highly carcinogenic compounds produced by certain molds. Zeng Jing of the Guangdong Armed Police Hospital said of gutter oil: "Animal and vegetable fat in refined waste oil will undergo rancidity, oxidation and decomposition after contamination. It will cause indigestion, insomnia, liver discomfort and other symptoms."
Regulations and law enforcement
Chinese law states that industrial animal fat is not allowed for use in food products because it does not meet basic hygiene standards and contains high levels of potentially toxic contaminants. The national and local governments are researching ways to test and identify gutter oil but as of 2012[update] there were no nationwide standards in place to help with this process. The government is looking into methods that rely on technical equipment as well as on-site instant tests to screen suspect oil. There are five proposed tests for gutter oil but each has failed to accurately detect it.
In August and September 2011, the Beijing city government passed two new sets of regulations. The first was "On Accelerating the City's Food Waste and Waste Oil Recycling Program". Its goals are to increase daily food waste processing to 2,200 tons by 2012 and to 2,900 tons by 2015. Additionally, the intent of the regulations is to create a system that "should be a unified, standardized, and orderly processing of waste oil collection and improvement of the transportation system". The second set of regulations by the city of Beijing, called the "Beijing Municipal Solid Waste Regulations", was passed in September 2011. The regulations specifically target the two sources of gutter oil: food waste and used oil. The central government intends for these two sets of regulations to serve as national examples, yet wants every municipality nationally to find their own solutions to the food waste and gutter oil problem.
A nationwide campaign was set in motion in August 2011 to crack down on the widespread production and selling of gutter oil. The law enforcement campaign uncovered 100 gutter oil manufacturers and arrested more than 800 people allegedly involved in the production and sale of gutter oil. In April 2012 another crackdown occurred with an additional 100 arrests made and 13 illegal workshops closed down across four provinces. According to a notice released jointly by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security, the death penalty will now be an option when prosecuting more serious cases of gutter oil manufacturing in the country. More severe punishments will also be given out to government and public officials who fail to properly address matters related to gutter oil. The State Council said inspectors would target edible oil trade fairs and wholesale markets and called for inspections of oil being used at restaurants, school cafeterias, work canteens and kitchens at construction sites. The State Council also stated that businesses that use recycled oil would be forced to close temporarily or lose their business license while peddlers who sell the oil could be criminally prosecuted. In October 2013, a man from eastern China's Jiangsu Province was sentenced to life imprisonment for profiting heavily from making and selling gutter oil.
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