Four full days (and counting) have gone by without law enforcement authorities in Lobatse responding to a public health emergency that Sunday Standard alerted them to.
However, as the immobile arm of the law took long to flex its muscles, an expatriate-owned tuckshop in Woodhall Two continues to sell waste cooking oil that numerous studies say can cause cancer.
On the other hand, however, the tuckshop owner, Costas Phanatolos, refuted the science, saying that he will only accept that the oil is harmful after it is tested and proven to be so. He added that he personally uses the oil to cook his own food and that his health has not been affected as a result.
This trade occurs in a mostly low-income residential area and the main customers are said to be poor old women from the neighbourhood who are attracted by the unbelievably low price. The oil is packaged in bottles that bear labelling of an otherwise reputable South African food company and sells at P14 for a two-litre bottle. Phanatolos himself touted the price as a plus, stating that his customers would otherwise have to shell out P40 more for fresh oil. He said that the oil comes from a restaurant he owned.
The oil is discoloured from apparent repeated use and appears to have undergone some kind of rudimentary refining because it contains neither sludge nor left-over food pieces. When heated, the oil foams up, rising to the brim of the pan and this has led to some customers returning the oil.
Our information is that the kiosk has no money-back guarantee for faulty products and that customers are instead given fruit and vegetables going bad and even then, only when the owner is around to give his authority. Conversely, Phanatolos said that he does reimburse customers who return the oil.
“Just this morning, I gave money back to a customer who returned the oil,” he said on Wednesday afternoon.
In terms of the Public Health Act, the police are empowered to seize food that is unfit for public consumption. Sunday Standard alerted the Woodhall Police about the sale of this waste oil on Tuesday morning. Reached by telephone the following day, Superintendent Tebogo Madisa said that his officers are not investigating the matter as he had referred it to the bye-law unit in the Lobatse Town Council. The unit had not responded two days later because the oil was still on sale. The officer Madisa referred us to was unreachable, his phone engaged the first time and ringing unanswered thereafter.
Following the interview with Phanatolos, the oil suddenly became unfit for human consumption. Appraised of this situation, the deputy mayor, Malebogo Kruger, alerted the mayor, Caroline Lesang, who rushed to the tuckshop but found a sign that said “Used oil for animal consumption.” Had law enforcement officers reacted as speedily as she did, they would not have found that sign there. Sunday Standard”s information is that the sign went up on Wednesday afternoon, a short while after the interview with Phanatolos. The sign also raises the most obvious question that Lesang says she asked herself: who feeds their domestic animals any kind of cooking oil?
The Food Control Act prohibits the sale of food that is unfit for human consumption. Such food “has in or upon it any poisonous or harmful substance, or consists in whole or in part of any filthy, dirty, tainted, putrid, rotten, decomposed, or diseased substance or foreign matter”.
A global law enforcement challenge, especially in the Third World, use of recycled cooking oil poses a serious health risk. One theory is that when heated over a certain temperature the chemical makeup of this oil changes into another kind of fat that is very hard to digest and because it stays in the body for a long time, can cause cancer.
In a study done by the Oil Crops Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, it was found that such oil may contain waste antibiotics or aflatoxins, a highly toxic substance that could cause cancer. In one Chinese province, the Food and Drug Bureau has had to set up a hotline to process citizens’ complaints about the use of drainage oil by restaurants.
In terms of the penalty scheme in the Food Control Act, a first offence carries a fine of P1 000 and imprisonment for three months while for a second or subsequent offence, one can be fined P5 000 and to imprisonment for six months. Additionally, the court may cancel or suspend any licence issued to an offender and order that any article relevant to the offence be forfeited and destroyed.
The Food Control Act also establishes the National Food Control Board which is chaired by the Director of Health Services in the Ministry of Health. Among others, the functions of this Board are the promotion and protection of personal and public health by ensuring the provision of safe and wholesome food to consumers as well as the prevention of and protection against commercial fraud in connection with imported or domestically available or produced unsafe and potentially hazardous foods.
The labelling on Phanatolos’ oil is also in contravention of the Food Control Act which prohibits the labelling, selling, advertising any food “in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive as regards its character, nature, value, substance, quality, composition, merit or safety.”
The oil has been packaged in recycled bottles originally used for Sunfoil Pure Refined Oil from Willowton Oil in South Africa. Speaking from Pietermaritzburg, a company official said that it would be extremely difficult for them to police all infringements of their copyright as regards small-scale, often unlicensed business operations like tuckshops.
The bigger picture though is that the recycling of cooking oil in this manner is not confined to a small trader in Lobatse. Thanks in part to inadequate supervision by relevant authorities and absence of effective way to detect illegal cooking oil, one too many catering businesses (including licensed restaurants as well as unlicensed roadside food stands) are known to recycle waste oil. As Lobatse kiosk case illustrates, the priorities of law enforcement agencies do not always cohere in the same direction.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations recommends that waste cooking oil should be used as bio fuel.