If you’ve been to China or their governed states in the past 2 years, you probably did too.
It’s a Friday night in a Hong Kong Michelin star restaurant. Waiters hurry past shouting into walkie-talkies – they’re communicating with the kitchen staff, who are deftly tending to the culinary needs of the Chinese mainland tourists. Many are wheeling suitcases full of cash to the city on the quest for luxury consumption.
The suitcase of cash is no hyperbole; it’s a frequent occurrence that Chinese farmers benefit from government demand for land that grows ever-more expensive. Unable to spend this new found wealth in China, the rich man’s playground of Hong Kong beckons. The city’s luxury hospitality industry appropriates the weighty suitcases, and their contents are absorbed into Hong Kong’s economy, characterised by its extreme income inequality.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Hong Kong has the most severe income inequality among the world’s most advanced economies. 1.3 million residents of Hong Kong (that’s 1 in 7 people) live under the poverty line. Malnourishment and deformity distinguish this class of the population.
Perhaps the root of the issue is a 7 year residency rule for welfare benefits in Hong Kong. This means that the mainland Chinese who find themselves in Hong Kong on their quest for prosperity have an inevitably tough few years. It’s a common sight, a beggar posed lying face-down in the middle of a walkway. Even for a deformed, poverty stricken man with no job prospects whatsoever, it isn’t enough to simply beg. Despite all this, the majority of the poor in Hong Kong seem to accept their lives as they are. Whilst the strive for finance is at the core of the Hong Konger, it is accepted that the hand that throws the metaphorical dice of wealth doesn’t determine the number.
Dìgōu yóu is the pinyin for Gutter Oil, sewage oil, Dìgōu oil. These mooncakes could well have been cooked with recycled sewage.
Illicit cooking oil, recycled from restaurant fryers, sewer drains, and slaughterhouse waste is a side effect of Hong Kong’s highly competitive and low-wage service industry. The issue is one that has been imported from the People’s Republic of China, both literally and metaphorically. It is estimated that up to one in every ten lower market restaurant meals consumed in China is prepared with gutter oil. Whilst it’s an illegal operation, it’s too costly to police; it simply isn’t feasible to check the quality of cooking oil as it crosses the border.
Reprocessing is often very rudimentary and takes place in mainland China; techniques include filtration, boiling, refining and the removal of adulterants. The end product is then packaged and resold as a cheaper alternative to normal cooking oil. Another version of gutter oil uses discarded animal parts, animal fat and skins, internal organs, and expired, low-quality meat which is then cooked in large vats in order to extract the oil. Tasty.
At least 141 restaurants and bakeries are believed to have produced and sold gutter oil produce, after being linked to Chang Guann, the Taiwanese edible oil exporter., found to have imported 500 tonnes of sewage lard into to the city of Hong Kong in September 2014. Five hundred tonnes of the processed sewage was found. How much wasn’t?
Despite the prestigious Hyatt Regency Hotel being implicated in the scandal, it is the lower market restaurants and street vendors that are the biggest buyers of gutter oil – they operate with tighter profit margins than the bigger chain restaurants, and look to save where they can. Cooking oil is one of the largest kitchen expenses. Used kitchen oil can be purchased for between 600 and 654 pound sterling per ton while the cleaned and refined product can sell for 1087 per ton. The production of gutter oil is a lucrative business.
Feng Ping, of the China Meat Research Centre, explains how the criminals get away with it. “The illegal oil shows no difference in appearance and indicators after refining and purification because the law breakers are skilful at coping with the established standards”. A victim, through consuming products laced with gutter oil, rarely recognises their affliction. The worst kind of crime is one done to you without your awareness, a crime concealed from your consciousness that embeds negative repercussions.
This profitable toxin is linked to ailments from diarrhoea, indigestion, insomnia, to cancer. “Gutter oil contains aflatoxin and benzopyrene, which are carcinogens liable to causing cancers of the stomach, colon, kidney, breast, ovaries, and intestines.” claims Zeng Jing, the director of the nutrition department at the Wu Jing Zong Dui Hospital of Guangdong Province.
The video above gives a good overview of how gutter oil is produced (and more pertinently, who the fuck produces it).
However complicated the health problems it can cause, the economic problem that leads to gutter oil is simple: restaurants have an incentive to demand gutter oil in a bid to lower their production costs, but they ignore the negative externality they impose on their consumers when they do so. To avoid this sub-optimal level of social welfare, the demand for gutter oil must shift away from the kitchen and towards a market in which it generates a positive externality. Although it poses serious health hazards on the dining table, gutter oil is an ideal raw material for producing rubber, soap, cosmetics and bio-fuel.
As I see it, the answer lies in bio-fuel technologies, which allow the sewage oil to be profitably converted into biofuel. By increasing demand, the price of biofuel will increase to a point that refining sewage oil to cooking oil is less profitable than selling sewage oil to a biofuel refiner. An equilibrium of high biofuel price would also create the economic incentive for private companies to professionally collect the sewage oil.