Taiwan's health minister quits over 'gutter oil' scandal

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's health minister Chiu Wen-ta has resigned over a food safety scare that has gripped the island after hundreds of tonnes of products made with "gutter oil" were removed from sale.

Chiu had repeatedly offered to step down after the tainted oil case surfaced last month, and his resignation was finally approved by Premier Jiang Yi-huah late Friday, a cabinet statement said.

He is the third minister to have stepped down in recent months. Economic affairs minister Chang Chia-juch resigned over fatal gas blasts in August, while education minister Chiang Wei-ling quit in July after he was implicated in an academic scandal.

Chiu's resignation came as prosecutors on Friday indicted Yeh Wen-hsiang, chairman of Chang Guann Co. on 235 accounts of fraud and food safety violations for selling hundreds of tonnes of "gutter oil" to food companies, bakeries and restaurants. Three people, including the manager of an unlicensed factory that supplied the firm, were indicted for the same offences while four others were charged with violating waste disposal law, prosecutors said.

Yeh has been detained since Sept 13 after investigators discovered his company had purchased 243 tonnes of tainted oil collected from cookers, fryers, and grease traps, as well as recycled grease from leather processing plants. The contaminated fat was then mixed with regular lard before being distributed to clients.

Since last month, hundreds of tonnes of cakes, bread, instant noodles, cookies, dumplings and other food items have been removed from shelves in Taiwan and Hong Kong for containing the tainted oil, authorities said.

It is the second food safety scandal to hit the island in less than a year. Last December, a Taiwanese factory owner was sentenced to 16 years in prison for selling olive oil adulterated with cheap cottonseed oil and a banned colouring agent, following mass product recalls.