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March 31, 2010

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Swill oil's slick spreads to Shanghai

THE risk of recycled waste oil being used for cooking extends to Shanghai kitchens, according to city government authorities.

The city produces about 40 tons of restaurant food grease every day.

But only about 29 tons of that grease is legally collected, recycled and disposed of, the Shanghai Greenery and Sanitation Bureau told some city legislators yesterday.

Officials said that the rest of the food grease from local restaurant kitchens remained untracked.

Hence, they can't exclude the possibility that some could be used for the notorious and highly harmful business of swill-oil production.

"As a city of nearly 20 million people, Shanghai only has 29 tons of its daily restaurant oil collected by authorized channels. I see that quantity as being far from enough," said Xuan Weisong, a legislator.

Heeding the warnings of a biodiesel professor who is also a member of the country's top food authority, the national food safety watchdog recently launched a sweep against the underground business, believed to have been widespread for years.

An estimated 2 to 3 million tons of swill oil - shown to harm people's kidneys and livers and to stunt children's mental development - is used by eateries and street vendors each year in China, according to an investigation led by the professor and other experts.

Shanghai has relatively sound monitoring of where restaurant gunk and grease goes and where it's processed, compared with many other regions in China. Still, the situation is far from satisfactory, according to the greenery and sanitation bureau.

The bureau, the leading watchdog for restaurant food waste, said the city's nearly 10,000 licensed restaurants produce 535 tons of food and meal leftovers every day - as well as those 40 tons of grease.

But because of a lack of law-enforcement manpower, and the difficulty of tracking down underground deals between illegal recyclers and some restaurants citywide, only about 29 tons of the grease daily is collected through authorized channels.

The city has authorized 43 companies to collect food waste from local restaurants, and licensed 19 others to pick up meal grease and oil. The companies are required to use sealed and dedicated container carriers.

The restaurants are charged a fee for handing over food waste to the government-designated collectors.

However, some of the company collectors have sub-contracted the deals to small or private grease collectors, creating an opportunity for illegal practices, said an industry insider, an official with Shanghai Zhongqi Environmental Protection Technology Co, one of the city's two government-licensed companies for processing and disposing of food grease.

This insider said that some of the private oil collectors sell the grease to out-of-town mills - raising the possibility that the waste grease could be further processed there to be sold again as kitchen oil.

Restaurants could sell their kitchen grease to the authorized food-oil processing companies, but current prices can seem unattractive.

The Zhongqi firm, for example, offers 3,800 yuan (US$556) per ton to buy kitchen grease from local restaurants. But some collectors offer 4,200 yuan, the official told legislators who visited the company yesterday.

After putting chemicals into the grease to complete an extraction process, underground mill operators can get new oil that seems normal, and later sell it to restaurants or street-food stalls at below-market prices.

The Zhongqi company had been suffering from a huge shortage of restaurant grease, the official said.

Food grease is meant to be processed by such companies into chemical and industrial oil products only - not to be led back to the dining tables by illicit means.


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