China: ‘Ditch oil’ floods restaurants

An economic investigation team detained a Hubei oil refiner Nov. 10 who pumped more than 60 tons of “ditch oil” into the local restaurant industry during the past three years, Hubei’s Jingzhou News reported.

Restaurants save on "ditch oil," which sells for $10 – $12 per barrel. Don Weinland/ photo

Concern over the prevalence of the second-hand oil in restaurant kitchens has increased sharply since an investigative report in March said Chinese consume more than 3 million tons of the substance per year.

The report from the Chongqing Evening Post said the oil contains aflatoxins, a carcinogen naturally occurring in mold and reportedly 100 times more deadly than arsenic.

Ditch oil production begins with the collection oil residues from hotel and restaurant sewers or trash piles, according to Baidu Encyclopedia. The substance is refined into edible oil and sold back into the industry, often finding its way into school cafeterias and small restaurants.

Widespread use of the oil is nothing new, blogger Zizuo-Congming writes. Recent media coverage of the health risk represents China’s last-minute attitude toward potentially grave health issues.


Ditch oil didn’t just suddenly appear today. Why did journalist only investigate and discover it today? Why is it that so many problems in China must first have seriously dangerous consequences before people become horrified?

Escalating media attention is indicative of larger problems with China’s food services industry, blogger Xingyu-liushui writes. But the alarm could cultivate better eating habits.


The exposure of ditch oil incidents illustrates the prevalence of vulnerability and hidden peril in the food safety chain and its relation to the people’s livelihood. It is incurably paralyzed and negligent. But on the other hand, it’s also become something positive. With an awareness of ditch oil’s harm and inferences about the industry in general, we can consciously reinforce the effective supervision of edible oil production and sales, allowing the people to rest at ease with a safer oil.

The business is lucrative, the Chongqing Evening Post reported. A refined ton of ditch oil costs about $45 to produce, while a barrel sells on the edible oil market for $10 to $12. The refinement produces an “unbearably foul stench,” according to the Jingzhou News report.

The Chinese government has taken increased interest in the health issue this year. The Ministry of Health announced in May hefty fines for possession of the oil. The State Council issued in July a proposal regarding local enforcement and preventative measures for keeping the oil off the market.

While the central government has eyed the problem, a solution cannot be reached without effective inspection and enforcement on a local level, Zizuo-Congming writes.


In the process of regulation, what actual work have management departments done? What kind of things do you monitor? When do you go monitoring and how do you perform an inspection? And what are the results? Why is it we have never heard of the management department following through with their responsibilities? Why is it that our management department is always sipping tea and reading the paper in the office, yet they are indifferent to the basic livelihood of the people.

In The Chongqing Evening Post report, professor He Dongping said the elimination of ditch oil could take 10 years. The “anarchy” of restaurant trash management in China provides an optimal environment for the collection of waste oils, he said in the report. Thorough government intervention into waste management may very well require more than a decade of effort.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Stay up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details. Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site