China probes claims that cooking oil was hauled in unwashed fuel tankers

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Chinese authorities have opened an investigation into cooking oil shipments after a local media report alleged that fuel tankers had been used to carry edible oil without being cleaned, setting off the latest food safety scandal in the country.

An undercover video by state-backed Beijing News last week showed numerous fuel tanker trucks carried cooking oil, with one driver calling it an “open secret” in the industry that truckers didn’t clean their tanks when switching between hauling toxic and edible liquids.

“I haul sugar, honey, molasses, cooking oil, motor lubricant,” another driver said in the video. “I haul everything.” A third truck driver said he usually did not pay the Rmb400-500 ($55-69) to wash his truck’s tank before changing cargo.

China’s state council, the cabinet, this week announced a joint investigation by multiple agencies led by the food safety commission to “thoroughly examine the problems related to the transportation of cooking oil in tankers” and “severely punish” companies and individuals found to be breaking the law, according to state media.

The report, which implicated China’s state-owned food company Sinograin, triggered a public outcry, with social media users and other local media unearthing past allegations of contaminated tankers. Using open-source data, one individual traced a suspect tanker delivering to a Yihai Kerry Arawana facility, a leading company in the country’s cooking oil market.

Sinograin said in a statement it had launched a “thorough special inspection” across its entire operations and that it would blacklist any transport companies found to be violating regulations. Yihai Kerry said it had a comprehensive food safety system in place and an internal investigation found all tankers supplying its facilities “underwent rigorous verification and inspection procedures”.

The revelation of unsanitary transport practices recalls a previous food safety scandal in 2011 when companies and individuals were found to be collecting cooking oil from street gutters to recycle and resell. 

China has long suffered from food and medicine safety scandals, with regulators turning a blind eye to corporate cost-cutting. In 2007, China executed its former chief food and drug regulator for taking bribes to approve medicines later found to have quality issues believed to have led to the deaths of at least five people.

In 2008, milk powder tainted with the toxic chemical melamine caused more than 300,000 infants to become ill and at least six deaths.

In 2014, a supplier to McDonald’s and KFC was found to be supplying expired meat to Shanghai outlets, while workers at a Beijing Subway franchise were revealed to have altered expiration dates on food products.

In 2018, a vaccine manufacturer was fined more than $1.3bn for distributing hundreds of thousands of faulty doses to children. 

The repeated safety shortfalls have caused widespread distrust of domestically manufactured milk powder and other foods and medicines, leading many Chinese consumers to prefer costlier imported products despite President Xi Jinping’s focus on the importance of food security for the country.

Sales of imported cooking oil jumped this week on China’s ecommerce platforms, while those of Sinograin brands were removed.

“We’ve sold in a few days what we’d usually sell in a month,” one imported cooking oil merchant told Chinese media.

Video: China’s intensifying focus on food security | FT Food Revolution

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