Food safety? No thanks, say China’s gourmets

While Chinese consumers continue to call for stronger measures to ensure food safety, a small band of activists in southeast China is fighting against new sanitation rules enforced in local restaurants.

After scandals in Sichuan province drew attention to the widespread recycling of used cooking oil last summer, authorities in nearby Chongqing responded by banning the practice in the city’s hotpot restaurants.

But connoisseurs of hotpot, Chongqing’s signature dish, criticize the move as stamping out an ancient and harmless tradition.  And many restaurant owners have complained that the ban on recycled oil has led to higher costs and empty tables.

“I feel like the flavor of Chongqing hotpot has lost its soul,” said Shu Mingwu in an interview with the city’s official Communist Party newspaper Chongqing Daily.

Last November, Shu helped to organize a conference on food safety in which the ban on recycled oil was sharply criticized.  A keynote speech by the former vice-president of the Agricultural University of China defended the reuse of old oil as “fundamentally different” from the infamous “gutter oil” that has recently made headlines across China.

Diners in Chongqing enjoy a meal of hotpot Pic: Hualong

Scandals involving the use of “gutter oil” have raised the ire and disgust of Chinese consumers throughout 2011.  Photos posted on popular online forums have revealed in detail how used oil is collected from drains and sewers before being recycled for cooking a second time.

In Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, a chain of Chongqing hotpot restaurants was shut down in April after the city’s Food and Drug Administration discovered it served recycled oil to customers.  The oil was taken from diners’ bowls after their meals, strained, and mixed with water, according to the Global Times.

Amid the negative publicity that followed, a meeting of the Chongqing City Hotpot Association banned the use of recycled oil by all restaurants under their jurisdiction.

But by the time the ban went into effect on Aug 18, the decision had already sparked heated controversy throughout China’s largest city.

Many critics defended the use of recycled oil as a century-old Chongqing tradition, claiming that the flavor left over from the meat and vegetables cooked by previous diners gives the city’s hotpot a unique taste that distinguishes it from other varieties of hotpot.

In this city whose name is synonymous with hotpot throughout China, the use of recycled oil was neither a secret nor an aberration.  The Chongqing City Hotpot Association estimated that as of August of last year, about 80 percent of Chongqing’s nearly 20,000 hotpot restaurants reused oil from customers’ meals.

An online survey posted on Aug 4, the day after the ban on recycled oil was announced, attracted over 13,000 respondents in one day.  The survey showed 66.5 percent of Chongqing residents opposed the ban, while 33.5 supported it.

A cook fills a hotpot bowl from a vat labeled "single-use oil" in a Chongqing restaurant Pic: Hualong

In the five months since the ruling against recycled oil, customers have found other reasons besides a change in flavor for opposing the ban.  “They charge several tens of yuan for a broth fee,” complained one recent diner, according to the Chongqing Daily.  “Before, two people could spend 50 or 60 yuan for hotpot.  Now, they need to spend over a hundred.”

“Eating hotpot is becoming a luxury,” he said.

The ban on recycled oil has been bad for business, with many smaller hotpot restaurants being forced to close their doors, critics say.  Restaurant owners report that higher prices and the unfamiliar taste of “single-use oil” has driven away customers.

“In the first month after we switched to single-use oil, the flow of customers dropped by half. After two months it got back up to 70 percent, and has stayed like this since then,” said one restaurant owner.  “We’ve been under a lot of stress.”

But the ban on recycled oil has its share of prominent supporters, who argue that it will improve food safety and boost the city’s image.

“Old oil hotpot may be cheap, but it’s not healthy,” says Li Dejian, president of one of Chongqing’s largest hotpot chains and one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of the switch to single-use oil.  In interviews with local and national media, he had admitted that the transition will be “painful.”

“Chongqing hotpot is facing a difficult threshold,” he told the city’s official Party newspaper.  “But after stepping over this threshold, Chongqing hotpot will enter a bigger and wider world.”