Outrage in China after reports of fuel tanker transport of cooking oil

An investigation is underway in China into revelations that cooking oil was transported in industrial fuel tankers that previously carried fuel without being cleaned in between.

The revelations have sparked outrage among Chinese families concerned about the health risks of contaminated oil in a country all 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 take top priority and senior officials are expected to present a package of reforms to restore confidence in a sluggish economy.

Authorities have done everything they can to contain the fallout from the revelations. For example, the Chinese cabinet this week ordered several ministries to investigate and local investigations have been launched in Hebei province and Tianjin city, while similar reports are coming in across the country.

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

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

While third-party shippers were the biggest culprits, major cooking oil manufacturers looked the other way, the article said, partly because there was no legally binding regulations prohibiting the practice.

Panic broke out among consumers who wanted to be sure that the oil they used every day at home for stir-frying was no longer available. usually soybean oil was not contaminated with carcinogens, heavy metals or other toxic substances.

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

Chinese consumers have no choice but to buy oil unless they return to their old methods of making it themselves from fatty meat, he said.

Scandals surrounding food safety and counterfeit medicines have plagued China since the early 2000s, when the pursuit of unbridled economic growth and business opportunities often involved backdoors and lax oversight.

In 2008, a major infant formula manufacturer was exposed for adding melamine, a chemical that causes kidney stones, to baby formula to artificially increase protein levels. Research found that six children died and 300,000 became ill from drinking the contaminated formula.

Since the early 2010s, cooking oil has become a major problem, when it emerged that dozens of restaurants and street vendors were trying to save money by scooping the remains of used cooking oil from the trash or gutter, processing it, and then cooking with it again.

As China’s economy has lost steam over the past decade, Xi has shifted from encouraging growth at all costs to providing people with a sense of security, whether from foreign threats or domestic misbehavior, he said.

In an attempt to prevent the scandal from spiraling out of control, China’s State Council on Tuesday launched an interdepartmental investigation into the transportation of edible oils, promising “severe punishments” for wrongdoing.

Official propaganda spoke of being on the side of the public, publishing fierce criticism of alleged misconduct and urging companies to do better. If confirmed by official investigations, the practice would be “tantamount to poisoning,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Official condemnation did little to quell the outrage. Online, people wondered why there were no rules requiring industrial goods and consumer goods to be shipped in separate containers. Some announced plans to buy imported oil or make their own from scratch.

Numerous reports came in from across the country as other media and internet detectives began investigating the tanker industry.

Using freight-tracking subscription services, journalists followed trucks traveling between industrial customers and cooking oil manufacturers, and reported suspicious patterns to local authorities.

The State Council’s investigation will be thorough, but the high pressure on the industry must become common practice, otherwise “the practice will sooner or later resurface,” said Zeng, head of the Guangzhou Food Industry Association.

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

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

Beijing News had found loopholes in the entire process of bulk edible oil transportation, a collective lack of awareness and lax supervision – meaning there were all sorts of contamination risks and the solution had to lie in “prevention, not detection,” Zhu wrote.

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

As anger mounted this week over the revelations, censors moved to suppress discussion, removing a number of articles on the topic and blocking related tags on social media. Online commentators defended the importance of public scrutiny and investigative journalism in exposing health and safety failures overlooked by officials.

Although Beijing News is a state-owned broadcaster, it is known for its in-depth reporting on social issues. Beijing News journalists regularly push the boundaries of censorship to expose abuses in state-owned enterprises and local governments.

Although the original article has remained online until now, follow-up reports from other media outlets often disappeared soon after publication.

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

“It was the media that finally brought attention to the mess of tankers carrying cooking oil,” wrote one user on Weibo, the social media platform. “In recent years, as the media’s ability to monitor has been severely diminished, more and more horrible things have happened.”

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