Gutter Oil For Your Food, Sir?

gutter oil
Food. Home-cooked food. There is nothing like it in the world. Well, almost. 
For many years, I had had my meals at the hawker centres or coffee shops. The reasons are because I either didn’t have time to cook, or I was not allowed to cook because I had been living in a rented room for a while. It is a common refrain among Singaporeans that we simply do not have time to cook at home because of our working hours.
Thus, for many of us – most of us, in fact – we have no choice but to eat out. Day after day, with weeks turning into years. 
The demand for cheap hawker fare is and will continue to be strong, as far as we are tired out from work, or because of our long working hours. The government recently announced that it will be building 10 more hawker centres the next few years, with at least one Member of Parliament calling for that to be doubled to 20. [See here.]
But with the proliferation of such food centers, there are problems emerging.
A recent blog post on how hawker food is cooked has gone viral, attracting intense interest because of the subject matter. 
Blogger Gintai related the experiences of his 72-year old mother who had been working in a mixed vegetable rice stall. These stalls always see long queues at peak hour because of the variety of the dishes – some stalls have up to 50 varieties – and their relatively cheap prices. A meat and two vegetable meal costs about $3 to $4. 
Gintai writes, however, that to keep prices and costs down, some of these stalls have resorted to short cuts.
He writes:
“[The] vegetable is never washed at all. One method is to boil a big pot of water and dump the unwashed vegetable to half-cook it. Thereafter, it’s then stir fried to taste. I do not worry about dirt and slime on the stalks and leaves of the vegetables. I am more perturbed by the tons of insecticide residue on them. Just look at the beautiful green leaves where even worms would not feast.”
He continues:
“Another observation made by my mum is that all those ingredients and condiments such as salt, oil, sugar, black or light soy sauce kept in small containers meant for cooking are all left overnight without any lids to secure them. Lizards, rats, cockroaches having a big party throughout the night and then they are used in the cooking the next day for our own consumption.”
It is quite scary stuff indeed. But it is perhaps not half as disturbing as this other story – that of gutter oil possibly being used to cook that very food mentioned by Gintai.
“Gutter oil?” you may ask. Yes, literally, oil that comes out of the gutter, or sewer. It is, in fact, quite a popular thing in China, it seems.
The concerns emerged after an investigative news report by Radio Free Asia in 2013. (See here.) 
The Washington Post picked up the story and said:
“Enterprising men and women will go through dumpsters, trash bins, gutters and even sewers, scooping out liquid or solid refuse that contains used oil or animal parts. Then they process that into cooking oil, which they sell at below-market rates to food vendors who use it to cook food…”
If you still don’t get the idea, you should watch the video by RFA:
Here is what the oil look like:
gutter oil
A news report estimated that 10 per cent of all oil used for cooking in China is gutter oil, including those used by restaurants. This is because it is cheap. 
Well, you may ask, “What has that got to do with Singapore?”
Unfortunately, it might have a lot to do with Singapore and how our hawker food is being prepared.
Earlier this year, it was reported that some people – who are reported to be Chinese and non-Singaporean - were seen pumping out “sewer contents” from opened manholes and drains in Yishun and Jurong. 
These pictures below were taken by members of the public of them doing so. They uncannily resemble what gutter oil scavengers do back in China:
gutter oil
gutter oil
gutter oil
gutter oil
The public outcry has prompted the authorities to look into the matter. The National Environment Agency (NEA), which oversees all public health and hygiene matters, was reported to have identified the lady and the men in these pictures and are investigating them.
gutter oil
It would be quite shocking if it was found to be true that they were harvesting used and discarded oil by-products from sewers and drains for recycling and re-use.
With a foreign labour explosion in the last few years, and the proliferation of food outlets, especially the ubiquitous hawker centers and coffee shops, there is a need for the authorities to keep an even keener eye on matters.
In the meantime, it is best to cook at home, which will be the subject of our next article – how cooking at home is not just about eating healthier food, but also about how it bonds the family. 
And as Gintai advised, do pay more attention to how your hawker food is cooked, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. After all, if it affects your health, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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