FOOD SAFETY

Taiwanese firm at centre of ‘gutter oil’ scandal ordered to pull products

All Chuan Tung lard oil ordered off the shelves in Taiwan after safety tests, while in Hong Kong, franchise takes curry dumplings off the menu

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 11:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2014, 8:44am

Taiwan has ordered the cooking oil supplier at the centre of a snowballing food scandal to pull all of its "Chuan Tung" lard oil products from shop shelves, even if they passed food safety tests.

The order followed reports that edible oil firm Chang Guann had blended "gutter oil" - illegally produced oil usually made from recycled kitchen waste - with fresh lard oil to produce 782 tonnes of Chuan Tung brand oil.

The scandal has rocked the food industry, with revelations that the oil was sold to more than 1,000 food manufacturers, bakeries, restaurants and night markets and used in a huge range of products, from mooncakes and dumplings to instant noodles, crackers and buns.

The scare has spread to Hong Kong, where Maxim's Group has admitted using Chang Guann oil to make 9,000 pineapple buns a day for the past three years. Yesterday, dumpling franchise Bafang Yunji said it had stopped selling curry dumplings at its 54 stores in Hong Kong because the curry paste supplier in Taiwan sourced its oil from Chang Guann.

Dr Philip Ho Yuk-yin, the Centre for Food Safety's consultant of community medicine, said the centre had phoned more than 100 businesses and sent emails to 10,000 or so others to verify whether they had used the oil. Only "dozens" returned calls and none replied to emails.

Hop Hing Oil Procurement said yesterday it had imported oil from Chang Guann. But it added that the oil was not the same type as the suspected gutter oil. The oil was supplied for bakery products and dim sum and all had been recalled.

Ho also said the centre had taken 46 food and oil samples from importers for laboratory tests. Tests on most samples have been completed. No samples were made from gutter oil.

Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released test results yesterday showing that one sample of the oil sold under the Chuan Tung brand met hygiene requirements. However, samples from two other batches - obtained by prosecutors investigating the scandal - failed the tests.

The FDA also said there was no record of Chang Guann importing gutter oil from the mainland. But the company had imported 87 tonnes of lard oil from Hong Kong and 672 tonnes from Japan.

Cabinet spokesman Sun Li-chyun said the government understood there could be "mixed feelings" about the decision to pull the products. "Even though it passed the test, [the oil] must be removed from shelves because Chang Guann used recycled oil, which is a violation of the food safety law here."

He said Premier Jiang Yi-huah had stressed that any manufacturers found to have violated food safety laws must be punished severely.

The FDA tests included scans for moulds and heavy metals.

The authorities tested three samples from the underground factory in the southern county of Pingtung that supplied the product to Chang Guann. Two of those samples had more than triple the acceptable level of benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogenic compound. Another series of samples of pre-refined oil from Chang Guann exceeded acceptable acid value levels, as did the underground factory samples.

Chen Hui-fang, head of the FDA's research and inspection section, said it also tested Chuan Tung lard. "Our lab results show that Chuan Tung lard had been refined and, except for the heavy metal part - the test for which has yet to be completed - the lard oil met all [safety] requirements."


Oil has many ways of entering the gutter

The term "gutter oil" first caught the mainland public's attention in 2010 when a professor in Wuhan revealed that up to 10 per cent of cooking oil used on the mainland could be made from recycled kitchen waste.

He Dongping, of Wuhan Polytechnic University, estimated then that restaurants and food stalls throughout the country used about three million tonnes of illegally produced oil every year, igniting a food scare.

Gutter oil refers to oil that is made by recovering and reprocessing liquid or solid kitchen waste scooped from gutters, waste bins or even sewers.

According to China National Radio, the term also refers to other types of illegally produced cooking oil. In some cases, it is boiled down from rancid animal fat. In others, it is cooking oil recycled for use as biodiesel.

Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that in the Chuan Tung case, the Kaohsiung-based cooking oil supplier Chang Guann mixed oil recycled from fryers with lard that had met most food safety tests.

But an applied science lecturer in Hong Kong said the Taiwanese authority's tests might not be comprehensive enough.

Wilson Chau Cheuk-fung, lecturer at the Institute of Vocational Education, said gutter oil could contain many kinds of harmful chemicals and it was difficult to test for them all.

"Many chemicals can cause cancer. What the Taiwanese authorities said may give people peace of mind, but it does not mean that the oil is completely safe. We still don't know how harmful the oil is," Chau said.

On the mainland, food safety regulators have said that in some cases confiscated gutter oil tested positive for several kinds of toxins, some of them carcinogenic. And mainland media have reported that reused cooking oil can be tainted with a fungus called aflatoxin, which can increase the risk of liver cancer.

He's revelations four years ago spurred mainland authorities into action.

In January, a court in Jinan , Shandong province, gave a suspended death sentence to the ringleader of one operation that racked up US$8 million from gutter oil sales, selling output from waste oil reprocessed at six underground plants to buyers in 14 provinces.