Stomach-Turning Video: You'll Be Grossed Out by What Goes Into Cheap, Black-Market Cooking Oil in China

Gutter Oil, an inexpensive alternative to cooking oil, is being sold to vendors across the country—and eaten up by its citizens.

When in China, beware the street food. You won't want to partake after viewing this video showing what kind of oil it is cooked in. It's called "gutter oil," and it lives up to its name.  

Cooking oil, one of the most heavily used ingredients in Chinese food, is also one of the most expensive. As a result, some street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurant owners are now reportedly buying cheap oil on the black market that’s made of recycled garbage. Yes, garbage. Street-savvy "food purveyors" go through dumpsters and trash cans (or, most revoltingly, gutters and sewers, as seen in the video below), and scoop out what ever liquid or solid refuse they may find—much of which is assumed to contain used oil or animal parts. Processing plants then mix together gallons of raw sewage and unidentified leftover animals parts, until its been boiled into a liquid the general density of cooking oil, which is then sold to cooks and food vendors for below-market rates.

This, of course, is completely illegal, as the reprocessed garbage and sewage is said to contains tons of untold and yet-to-be-identified germs, carcinogens and other toxins that are extremely harmful to humans when ingested. Chinese authorities have been trying to put an end to the practice for some time now, and while not all street vendors use gutter oil, the problem to already be “widespread.” 

The gutter oil industry has proven surprisingly fruitful for the folks finding, processing and selling the vile material. The woman at the heart of the video documenting the process (produced by Radio Free Asia) says that after more than ten years in the business, she has “finally made enough money to build a house for her family back in her home village almost a thousand miles to the north.” And just this past April, Chinese authorities uncovered and shut down a gutter oil production ring that reportedly spanned 13 cities and over 100 people—a network that would acquire rotten animal parts and boil down the fat into oil. 

The shutdown occurred after a five-month investigation yielded a reported 3,200 tons of gutter oil, which authorities estimated had been sold to a staggering $1.6 million profit. As with most things, the rampant issue of gutter oil is more emblematic of larger questions of hygiene, food safety, economic disparity and a general notion of demand outweighing the possibility of healthy supply in an every-growing China. 

Even with the crackdown, insiders estimate that as much of 1/10 of China’s cooking oil supply is actually gutter oil.

Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.

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