China’s State Council has ordered central and local public health authorities to intensify their crackdown on illegal cooking oil, citing a “serious food safety risk,” Xinhua, Chinese official media reported yesterday.
In March, The China Daily and The Taipei Times reported that almost one-tenth of the country’s cooking oil contains cancer-causing agents and was illegally gathered from drainages and reused in restaurants.
The recycled kitchen waste, commonly referred to as “gutter oil,” often appears to be clean, but contains toxic substances, including aflatoxin, a toxin known to cause cancer. According to a local expert, the real risk comes from long-term exposure to the tainted cooking oil.

“There’s only a slim chance that you will be poisoned immediately afterwards if you eat this ‘gutter oil,'” Zheng Fengtian, a food safety expert at Renmin University in Beijing told a national news wire. “The biggest problem is that after eating this overcooked oil, people could–though some don’t–develop cancer in 10 or 20 years.”

According to Xinhua, the new campaign will target places where the recycled oil is produced, including small restaurants, construction sites, and school canteens. Food establishments which use the illegal oil could face punishments ranging from suspension of operations to revocation of their business licenses.

The food safety commission under the State Council would analyze the results of the campaign from September to October this year to see whether it had been effective, according to documents released by the cabinet.

Though the cooking oil scandal appears to purely a domestic problem, it’s endemic of the country’s ongoing struggle to regulate food production and build a national food safety system.

Earlier this month, Chinese authorities seized 76 tons of melamine-tainted dairy products, on top of the 170 tons tainted with the industrial chemical found in early 2009, all presumably left over from a highly-publicized 2008 scandal that sickened over 300,000 and killed six infants.