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Outrage in China after reports that tankers were transporting cooking oil

Outrage in China after reports that tankers were transporting cooking oil

Investigations are underway in China after it was discovered that cooking oil was being transported in industrial fuel tankers that had previously loaded fuel – without cleaning it in between.

The revelations have sparked anger among Chinese families concerned about the health risks posed by contaminated oil in a country where food scandals are not uncommon.

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

Authorities are currently trying to control the fallout from the revelations. The Chinese cabinet ordered investigations in several ministries this week. Local investigations have also been launched in Hebei province and the city of Tianjin as similar reports have continued to surface across the country.

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

The detailed investigation, based on weeks of observing tankers and interviewing drivers, found that mixed use of trucks is an “open secret” in the industry and an opportunity for freight companies to cut costs.

Although third-party transport providers were the main culprits, the major cooking oil producers tended to look the other way, the article says, partly because there was no legally binding regulations prohibiting this practice.

Panic broke out among shoppers who sought reassurance that the oil they used daily for frying at home most commonly 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 to thoroughly check its quality, Zeng Qiuwen, chairman 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.

Food insecurity and counterfeit medicine scandals have plagued China since the early 2000s, when the pursuit of unbridled economic growth and business opportunities was often accompanied by shortcuts and lax regulatory oversight.

In 2008, a major infant formula manufacturer was exposed for adding melamine, a chemical that causes kidney stones, to powdered milk. to artificially increase the protein content. An investigation found that six children died and 300,000 became ill because they drank the contaminated baby formula.

Cooking oil has been particularly problematic since the early 2010s, when dozens of restaurants and street vendors were found trying to save money by scooping up leftover oil from garbage or gutters, processing it and then cooking with it again.

As China’s economy has lost momentum over the past decade, Xi Jinping has stopped promoting growth at all costs. It is equally important to give people a sense of security, whether from foreign threats or domestic misconduct, he said.

Apparently in an effort to prevent an escalation of the scandal, China’s State Council launched an interagency investigation into the transportation of cooking oils on Tuesday and threatened “severe penalties” for violations.

Official propaganda claimed to be on the side of the public, sharply criticized the alleged misconduct and called on the companies to improve. If this is confirmed by official investigations, the state broadcaster CCTV said, this practice would be “tantamount to poisoning.”

Official criticism failed to quell the outcry. People on the Internet asked why there were no regulations requiring that industrial goods and consumer goods be transported in separate containers. Some announced that they would buy imported oil or produce their own oil.

A flood of reports came in from across the country as other media and Internet sleuths began to investigate the tanker industry.

Using subscribed cargo tracking services, journalists tracked the movement of trucks between industrial customers and cooking oil producers and reported suspicious patterns to local authorities.

The State Council will conduct thorough investigations, but the high pressure on the industry must become the norm, otherwise this practice will “emerge sooner or later,” said Zeng, chairman of the Guangzhou Food Industry Association.

Similar incidents involving contaminated tankers have been reported in China before. In 2005, for example, reporters found evidence that molasses was being transported in tanks used to transport diesel – the tanks had not been cleaned.

But “people don’t seem to be learning from these past incidents,” wrote Zhu Yi, a researcher at China Agricultural University, on the Hong Kong-based website Phoenix Media.

Testing alone is not enough, Zhu said. One reason it is difficult to detect contamination is that the hydrocarbons left over from the fuel are often too small to be detected in cooking oil tests.

Beijing News discovered loopholes, a general lack of awareness and lax oversight throughout the process of transporting cooking oil in bulk. This means there are all sorts of risks for contamination and the solution must lie in “prevention, not detection,” Zhu wrote.

Another problem is that the competitive transportation industry can hardly make money in times of recession. Tank cleaning takes four to five hours and can cost up to $55, financial magazine Caixin reported.

As anger grew following this week’s revelations, censors stepped in to stifle discussion by deleting some articles on the issue and blocking related tags on social media. Online commentators defended the importance of public scrutiny and investigative journalism in exposing health and safety failings missed by authorities.

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

While the original article remained online, follow-up reports from other media outlets often disappeared shortly after publication.

A tracking service that journalists used to monitor trucks was taken offline on Wednesday, financial news portal Yicai reported. The article was also taken offline hours later.

“It was the media that finally paid attention to the chaos involving the tankers carrying cooking oil,” wrote one user on the social media platform Weibo. “In recent years, as the media’s ability to control things has greatly diminished, more and more terrible things have happened.”