09/09/2014, 00.00
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Gutter oil mooncakes scandal spoils Mid-Autumn Festival

The great annual Mid-Autumn festival celebration typically involves buying and giving mooncakes. However, Taiwanese authorities sound the alarm bell after finding 782 tonnes of gutter oil made from waste and lard oils. In mainland China, the Party orders its officials not to give or accept gifts for the holiday that might be construed as graft.

Taipei (AsiaNews) - Taiwan has ordered cooking oil supplier Chang Guann to pull all lard oil products - especially mooncakes -from shop shelves, including those in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The order follows reports that the edible oil firm 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. If ingested in large quantities, the latter can cause nausea, internal bleeding, and cancer.

Announced yesterday, this latest food scandal comes after Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released test results involving oil used in Chuan Tung brand products.

The authorities tested three samples and found that two had more than three times the acceptable limit of benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogenic compound.

The scandal has badly affected Taiwan's local food industry, with close to 1,000 food manufacturers, bakeries, restaurants and night markets found to have used the oil to process a huge variety of food products.

Taiwan's government ordered checks on all of the island's food manufacturing and processing plants, which will take about 30 months.

In addition, it also called on Hong Kong and mainland authorities to do the same with those shops that might have had dealings with the company under investigation.

However, carrying out such an order would be hard. Dr Philip Ho Yuk-yin, a community medicine consultant with the Centre for Food Safety, 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.

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.

The scandal is even more serious considering that the oil is used by different companies that produce mooncakes, sweets typically made with lotus paste and eaten during the Mid-Autumn (or moon) Festival.

The festivity was celebrated yesterday in most of East Asia with hundreds of millions of workers going home bringing traditional sweets to parents and children.

According to the authorities, it is impossible to know how many cakes made with gutter oil have been sold and presumably eaten.

Giving mooncakes has sparked criticism in mainland China in relation with the anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping.

For decades, low-ranking Communist officials spent a lot of money on luxury items (accompanied by cash) to give to their superiors.

To prevent this practice, the Party has ordered its members not to give or accept mooncakes.

However, as a result of the controversy, state media have tried to downplay the controversy, claiming that officials had overreacted and misinterpreted the central authorities' call.

"There are only several holidays a year, so it is considerate of employers to greet staff and give out some benefits that will make everyone happy at this time. How is this related to corruption?" the People's Daily wrote in an editorial.

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