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Outrage in China over use of unwashed fuel tankers to transport cooking oil



Outrage in China over use of unwashed fuel tankers to transport cooking oil

A food safety scandal has caused mounting public outrage in China days before a high-level Chinese Communist party meeting at which leaders will try to boost confidence in the economy.

Last week the state-run newspaper Beijing News published an in-depth exposé on the “open secret” of fuel tankers being used to transport cooking oil, without the tankers being washed or disinfected in between.

In the report, an undercover reporter interviewed a trucker who had driven a tanker of coal-derived fuel from Ningxia, a region in the west of China, to the east coast city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei, a journey of more than 800 miles (1,290km). The trucker told the journalist he was not allowed to return with an empty vehicle, and subsequently drove to a facility in another part of Hebei to load up with nearly 32 tons of soya bean oil, without cleaning the tanker. Several other tankers featured in the article made similar journeys.

The scandal has implicated several major Chinese companies including the state-owned oil and grain company Sinograin and Hopefull Grain and Oil Group, a private conglomerate. Both companies said they were investigating the claims.

This week the office of the food safety commission under China’s State Council said it was investigating the claims and that “individuals found violating the law through improper use of tanker trucks will face severe punishment”.

Chinese regulations state that different tankers should be used for transporting cooking oil and fuel, which is derived from coal and is potentially poisonous.

The Beijing News report revealed that inspections were often absent or cursory. In one case, on a tanker waiting to collect a load of edible oil, a piece of white paper was taped over the writing that indicated it should be used for fuel.

It is not clear where the cooking oil in the fuel-contaminated tankers ultimately ended up. Follow-up reports tracking the truckers identified in the Beijing News article suggested that the tankers delivered oil to packaging facilities run by household brand names in China, intensifying concerns that people could be consuming toxic oil. The article also quoted an industry insider as saying that some of the oil may ultimately be packaged into small bottles for foreign sales.

The news has caused widespread outrage in China, where there are deeply rooted fears about food safety after a series of scandals and perceived lack of accountability for rule-breakers.

In 2008, six babies died and 300,000 were sickened by contaminated baby formula. In 2013, more than 16,000 dead pigs were found in the Huangpu River, which supplies Shanghai with drinking water. Last year, images of a school canteen in Jiangxi went viral after a student found a rat’s head in his meal, which the school initially claimed was duck meat.

The hashtag #edibleoil had more than 16m views on Weibo on Thursday. Many commenters praised the role of journalists in exposing the scandal. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen investigative journalism like this, kudos to the media,” one commenter wrote on Weibo.

Some analysts questioned why Beijing News, a Chinese Communist party-backed outlet, had been allowed to publish such a damning report shortly before CCP leaders meet for the third plenum, one of China’s most important political gatherings, next week.

Investigations into consumer and public health issues used to be relatively common in China’s media, but in the past decade the space for independent reporting has been dramatically squeezed and the CCP maintains a tight grip on what kind of information can be published.

Other hashtags relating to the incident, particularly those that named specific companies, appear to have been censored on Weibo.

One sensitive topic appears to be posts relating to Jinlongyu, a household brand of cooking oil that has been implicated in the scandal. Shares in Jinlongyu’s parent company fell by more than 8% on Wednesday amid concerns that its oil could be tainted. The company said its trucks met national requirements.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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