HEAT FROM THE COPS: Law enforcement personnel demolish an illegal "gutter oil" plant in a village in Hefei, east China's Anhui Province (ZHANG DUAN)
They were racing through Beijing's busy traffic, actually racing, weaving in and out between cars until coming to a halt in front of a traffic light. The vehicle was a small white utility van, with large English lettering painted on the side panel. As our bus edged forward and came parallel with the van, while in an adjacent lane, I could see inside this anxious van two Chinese men laughing and chatting. Were they trying to flee from someone? What was the great rush? Was there an appointment to be kept that demanded the execution of emergency maneuvers in morning traffic? Then I looked again at the characters adorning their vehicle. Their extreme haste suddenly became explicable: The characters read, "Re-Conditioned Oil for Cooking Needs!"
"Food safety is now a global concern. Even in the United States where strict food supervision and management of safety exist, accidents still occur. Although food safety issues are difficult to eliminate, the United States is still the most advanced country in terms of supervision and information transparency," said Cheng Guoer recently in Wings of China, an in-flight magazine.
While this may be true in the United States, and even were it to be true in China, perhaps an even more important question is: What happens to the food once it leaves the stores and enters the home or into the commercial cooking process? Will the food still be safe once it reaches your table? In order to practically address these concerns, it is imperative to examine how "safe" your cooking methods are. More specifically, it is important to establish what cooking oils are being used when preparing your food, and whether or not legally approved cooking oils are used when you are not eating at home.
It is no secret that we all enjoy eating something tasty and delicious. However, it is important to our health to be selective in what we choose to cook in, or where we choose to consume those tasty dishes. Stir-frying is a Chinese cooking technique in which ingredients are fried in a small amount of very hot oil while being stirred in a wok. Most of us enjoy a wide variety of foods cooked in some kind of oil. However, it is difficult to know for sure what is safe and what is unsafe. According to a China Daily report, "Illegal cooking oil is usually made from discarded kitchen waste that has been refined. Although it looks clean, it actually contains toxic substances, including aflatoxin, which can cause cancer."
The illegal cooking oil business is highly profitable because the cost of buying food waste and refining it is low, while the prices of oils fit for consumption are rising. The profit margin is almost 200 percent, one of the reasons why this business is so, pardon the pun--"hot"--at present. The China Food and Drug Administration has stepped up inspections of all food-service providers and vowed to punish manufacturers producing "drainage oil," cooking oil refined from discarded kitchen waste.
Two years ago, the Intermediate People's Court of Lianyungang in east China's Jiangsu Province sentenced 16 people to jail, with terms ranging from one year to life imprisonment, for making and selling so-called "gutter oil" between 2011 and 2012. A total of 117 oil manufacturers and stores in Anhui, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Beijing were involved in the cases. The oil had been sold for a total of 60 million yuan ($9.7 million).
Traditional cooking oils used today are: soybean oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, palm oil, canola oil (rapeseed oil), cotton seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, grape seed oil, and rice bran oil. The big question is whether or not one has become addicted to the taste of a particular oil source.
Oils and fats can begin to go rancid quickly when not stored safely. Oftentimes, rancid cooking oils and fats do not actually smell rancid until well after they have spoiled. To prevent oils from becoming rancid, they should be refrigerated. Refrigerated cooking oils can be safely used only for a few weeks. All in all, one should read the label of the ingredients before buying cooking oils, and use your translator app if you do not know Chinese. Whether eating in the city or countryside, it is a good idea to think about your health first, and taste buds second!
The author is an American living in Beijing
Copyedited by Eric Daly