Minds in the Gutter

Hong Kongers have got their minds in the gutter.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that means they're worried about food safety (once again; it never ends), rather than being dirty-minded. And one can hardly blame them, given the latest scare involving 'gutter oil' (地溝油).

What was once a problem confined to street-food vendors in mainland China and Taiwan has become widespread; Chang Guann, a major Taiwanese food oil manufacturer, purchased 243 tonnes of gutter oil from a factory in Pingtung in southern Taiwan to mix with lard, producing 782 tonnes of oil for export. And many Hong Kong bakeries and restaurants unwittingly used this oil in their foodstuffs.

So what is gutter oil? Pretty much what it sounds like: used cooking oil collected from restaurants, grease traps, kitchen waste and sewer drains that is mixed with slaughterhouse offal and even waste by-products from leather processing plants. Street-food vendors buy the recycled oil because it's much cheaper than the untainted stuff. Can you say 'toxic'? Can you say 'cancer'?

If you don't believe it, have a look:

Now if that isn't enough to make you hurl, I don't know what would. Since the scandal broke the Hong Kong government has banned the sale of products made with oil from Chang Guann and has been tracking imports and where they went. Aside of bakeries, companies like 7-11, Starbucks, Maxim's Group and even the Hyatt Regency have been affected (personally I doubt I've been much affected by gutter oil; I don't buy processed foods and rarely eat baked goods, and instead of eating at restaurants I cook at home using either extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil. And when we travel we don't eat from street vendors, ever).

The Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety has steadily updated a list of companies suspected of having used the adulterated oil (bearing in mind that some have objected, saying they've never used Chang Guann lard; while others that had have already switched suppliers), thereby providing consumers, who are the ultimate victims in all of this, the opportunity to enquire of their favourite shops whether they've since sourced clean oil.

From this database the South China Morning Post produced a handy interactive map which makes location-based checking easier.

The upside of this crime is that food safety in the Big Lychee has improved. It's a lot like what happens after an airline disaster; officials figure out what went wrong and take steps to fix the problem industry-wide, which in turn makes air travel safer.

The main difference is that when a plane goes down the tragedy is immediate; when people unknowingly ingest gutter oil, they have no idea if or when health problems will turn up.

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Big White Guy is the personal web site of Randall van der Woning, who hails from Canada but has lived in Hong Kong with his wife Mabel for the past 15 years. Randall is a photographer, photography teacher, and writer.

Seriously ... Big White Guy? The nickname was given in Canada but was shortened to BWG, because this wouldn't be the Internet if we didn't initialise everything.

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