Chinese Court Threatens Death for Swill Merchants: Adam Minter

The Chinese people are rightfully proud of their centuries of culinary excellence and often show uncharacteristic immodesty when extolling it. But two decades of food safety scandals involving the contamination of baby formula, pork, eggs, peanuts and rice have rocked the country. And the use of recycled cooking oil, often known as “gutter oil,” in Chinese cooking has been a chronic safety problem seemingly immune to countless government crackdowns.

On Feb. 24, the Supreme People’s Court, in concert with top law enforcement agencies, announced that the sale of used cooking oil “seriously affects the image of the country and damages the credibility of the Party and the government.” Then, in a symbolic measure sure to satiate the most vengeful of China gourmands, it stated:

Courts should fully consider suspects' intentions, the amount of money involved and the harm that has been done to the public … For those who deserve death, the death penalty should be handed down resolutely.

Many restaurants across China are suspected of using gutter oil for cooking. It's widely believed that if they aren’t using it, they're often selling it rather than dumping it. “Swill merchants,” those seeking to make money from this waste, either collect it from gutters or sewers or -- preferably, in a sense -- buy the used oil from restaurants in buckets and barrels. They then “refine” the oil by straining out contaminants and adding in chemicals to dissipate bad odors. After re-packaging the oil, they sell it to restaurants -- often the same ones that supplied it -- via nationwide distribution networks.

Login to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site, at any hour of the day and somebody is sure to be discussing "waste oil" or another food scandal. In October 2011, for instance, netizens teased that U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden’s well-publicized visit to a Beijing noodle restaurant wouldn’t turn out well for him because, unlike native Beijingers, he hadn’t developed the intestinal fortitude to handle gutter oil.

In the latest, highly-publicized crackdown last summer, the government arrested more than 800 swill merchants and  shuttered more than 100 businesses. Still, the use and highly profitable sale of recycled cooking oil persists. The campaign against gutter oil has become a symbol of the party’s ongoing struggle to improve China’s food supply. But its shortcomings have called into question the party’s ability to ensure basic, safe nutrition for China's people.

So what else can the government do?

Many of China’s netizens, apparently, are ready to roll out the gallows: “Who’s going to be the first person sentenced to death for waste oil ?” Asked Devil in Gangbei, the handle of a gleeful Fujian TV reporter.

Many microbloggers feel that the Supreme Court is actually showing far too much restraint in its new sentencing guidelines. For example, microblogger Li Ligang encouraged a much more expansive use of capital punishment on Weibo: “The main culprits can be sentenced to death, and I applaud it! But it would be even better if all the food safety criminals could be sentenced to death.”

For some netizens and newspapers -- including party-run news organs -- the definition of “all the food safety criminals” doesn’t only involve those directly profiting from the gutter oil business, but also government officials. This is no great surprise: In contemporary China, great wealth is typically associated with great corruption. It’s widely assumed (often correctly) that a business as pervasive as gutter oil must have highly respectable profit margins that attract highly respectable officials.

Thus, Walking Tan Qian, the handle of a travel blogger, posted to his Sina Weibo account a photo of what appears to be two police officers in the act of recycling a small batch of waste oil. Bo Xiaozhe, writing for Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, condemned such seeming complicity and offered this policy advice in a Feb. 28 editorial: “The most basic implementation and enforcement of gutter oil laws should eradicate and prevent individual public officials from acting in collusion with gutter oil criminals.”

Nonetheless, for all the anger at the waste oil merchants and their patrons, few think heavier penalties will make much of an impact on a highly profitable industry. In a lengthy editorial in the Beijing-based Worker’s Daily, a venerable state-owned paper that focuses on economic issues, Cheng Li touched on this perspective:

Gutter oil can't be eradicated only by adding heavy penalties to the law. There are always plenty of people motivated by profits and willing to battle high waves and winds … [T]his situation can't be broken by prohibition.

Even the most bloodthirsty of netizens don’t seem to expect any practical results to emerge from the threat of waste oil executions. Indeed, by Wednesday, they’d moved onto new food-related scandals, including news that Chinese Olympians are now raising their own chickens in order to avoid ingesting chemicals used in commercially raised ones. However, at least for one microblogger, this raised a pressing question: “How do you ensure that the chicken feed doesn’t contain prohibited goods, too?”

Threatening the death penalty, presumably, will not be among the enforcement tools that China’s food safety regulators will use to answer that question.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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