Court upholds hefty sentences for gutter oil sellers

SHANGHAI - A court in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, has upheld an original criminal sentence on seven suspects involved in manufacturing huge amounts of gutter oil.

Liu Liguo, the head of a gang that had refined and sold gutter oil since 2007, and six people working for him, were convicted of producing and selling hazardous and substandard food, according to a final verdict issued on Friday by the Higher People's Court of Zhejiang province.

Gutter oil refers to recycled oil made from kitchen waste dredged from gutters behind restaurants as well as inedible animal oil. The oil, which contains carcinogenic substances, is dangerous if consumed.

"Though fully aware that their buyers were edible oil distributors, Liu Liguo and others still sold them the substandard oil they had refined from used kitchen oil, and allowed the gutter oil to enter the food market," according to a statement from the Zhejiang court.

Liu was given a life sentence by the Ningbo Intermediate People's Court in the first trial on April 16. The other six suspects were handed down sentences of seven to 14 years in prison.

Prosecutors said that Liu's companies in Shandong province had sold 99.2 million yuan's worth ($15.6 million) of gutter oil since December 2007.

The trial started at 9 am on Friday with the final verdict being delivered around 6 pm.

Zhang Gang, a lawyer with the Shanghai office of Yingke Law Firm, said that it was unusual for a verdict to be delivered so fast.

"Any food safety case is a hot issue, and draws strong public attention - that's maybe a reason why the case was dealt with so fast and severely," said Zhang, adding that this case would possibly deter potential illegal gutter oil makers.

The Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate jointly issued a legal interpretation for cases involving food safety in early May, with the illegal use of gutter oil being criminalized for the first time as an act of mixing toxic substances with food.

Anyone who processes edible oil by adding gutter oil can be convicted of producing and selling hazardous food under Chinese Criminal Law, according to the interpretation.

In related trials in April, the Ningbo court sentenced Bu Qingfeng from Henan province to life imprisonment after he earned 201 million yuan from selling gutter oil he bought from Liu.