One of the great joys of travel within China is its eating opportunities, from ornate banquet halls to the street vendors all over the cities. Well, perhaps that was one of the joys. It turns out that as many as 1 in 10 meals in China is cooked with reused cooking oil. Perhaps “reused” is the polite term—oil collectors often salvage cooking oil from restaurant drains or even glean it from sewers, and then recycle it into cooking oil.
The shock over tainted food from China, which gave cable TV commentators in the US like Lou Dobbs plenty to screech about, caused not only a scare with China’s trading partners, but within the nation of 1.3 billion hungry people. Contaminated milk, high melamine content in food products, tainted vegetable protein, dumplings laced with pesticide, and beans with a side of isocarbophos have caused outrage among the Chinese as well. But in a country where fried bread (you tiao) is a cheap and popular breakfast food on the go, cooking oil from sewers has pushed many Chinese, albeit wealthier ones, to buy organic.
The Chinese have surpassed the Japanese in the consumption of organic food. Estimates suggest that the organic food market in China is worth US$1.5 billion, a four-fold increase from five years ago. The market is still young, and measuring what is “organic” in China is difficult, even untrustworthy, as laws on organic food in China are relatively lax. Even if Chinese farmers who go organic follow such regulations exactly, that does not mean pesticides or other toxins that seep from neighboring farms or towns cannot creep onto one’s property.
One farm trying to make a difference is Lejen Chen’s Green Cow. Concerned with the quality and safety of food in Beijing, Chen launched a farm three years ago and has even started a community supported agriculture (CSA) project for some local families and expats. On the six hectare property, fruit trees, grains, soy, and vegetables grow on land while a few cows, hens, and even 6 hives of bees roam about.
The push for improving the quality and safety of food in China, however, has a long road ahead. As the country becomes more urban, farmers often dump far more fertilizers and pesticides than necessary in order to boost crop yields. Organic is still far too expensive an option for most Chinese families.
As for the oil collectors who are extracting cooking oil from dubious locations, the Chinese government promises to end the practice. Currently no laws are on the books, however, and when a barrel of recycled oil can go for only about US$44, plenty of restaurant owners and street vendors will go for the cheap option unless they are caught in the act and must cough up huge fines that would discourage the practice.
I have to say, all those neighborhood donuts shops sound a lot less appealing now.