Assurances over food hard for teams to swallow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2008, 12:00am

Foreign competitors vow to shun local cuisine after doping incident

When swimming-medal prospect Ouyang Kunpeng was banned for life three weeks ago after testing positive for a steroid he is believed to have ingested innocently when he ate Chinese pork, a joke started making the rounds among Beijing Olympics correspondents and sports journalists.

The joke asks which Middle Eastern country - Israel or one of the Islamic nations - will be the biggest medal winner, as their religions forbid the eating of pork and their athletes will therefore pass the dope tests administered to catch cheats.

Livestock raised for consumption on the mainland is known to be given feed that contains additives. The drug in Ouyang's case, clenbuterol, is widely used on China's pig farms and can enter the food chain.

The mainland has been the target of high-profile food scares and subsequent product recalls - involving such items as dumplings exported to Japan, pet food to the US and toothpaste to Europe - and they have cast a shadow of doubt over food safety as the Olympics approach.

The prospect that international sports stars could be disqualified next month because of what they chose from one of the nation's world-famous menus has caused a great deal of humiliation and anger on the part of the Games organising committee. The officials have taken Olympic food safety very seriously and have implemented tough measures to ensure that what is served on the dining tables is safe and of the highest standard.

In keeping with the mantra of a 'scientific, green, people's Olympics', what the 10,500 athletes who reside in the Olympic Village will eat has been the subject of intense, hi-tech planning.

Kitchens and food-storage areas with be fitted with alarms and guarded around the clock.

Vans delivering food for the Olympics will all be equipped with global positioning systems - part of a tracking system to ensure the food is not tampered with.

Packaged vegetables will be fitted with an electronic tagging device to trace their origins. Drivers and other personnel responsible for food deliveries must ask for permission to leave their vehicles. Cooks are undergoing intensive training so they prepare the organic vegetables and fresh meat to perfection. White mice are official food testers.

Organic farmer Lin Yuan, who farms 23 hectares 80km from Beijing, has been contracted to grow tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, small peppers, cucumbers, fragrant celery and carrots for the Olympic tables.

'I use only organic fertilisers made from sterilised animal stools. The growing method strictly complies with the Agriculture Ministry's requirements,' he said.

Wang Wei, an executive vice-president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, said last year: 'We are very confident about ensuring food safety in Beijing. Actually, Beijing has hosted a lot of big events, and there have been no problems regarding food safety in these events.'

But Ouyang's ban dealt a devastating blow to the mainland's public relations battle to instil confidence in Olympic food. Several national Olympic associations immediately warned their athletes to be extra-careful with their diet.

The British Olympic Association warned athletes and team officials to resist the temptation to try out fare in local diners and instead 'to eat within the confines of Team [Great Britain] official catering facilities'.

Last year, the US team said it would bring its own food stocks because it could not trust local cuisine.

Other teams are doing the same.

'I feel it's a pity that they decided to bring their own food. We have made lots of preparations to ensure that the athletes can socialise together at the Olympic Games,' Kang Yi, the head of the food division for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, said in February after the US decision.

As is the standard practice, Olympic caterers have signed contracts. Aramark, a company based in Philadelphia, will offer western cuisine with a complementary smattering of Chinese dishes cooked by Chinese staff with Chinese products.

Although this allayed some fears among international delegates, many are still planning to bring their own food.

However, the prospect of dozens of mini-kitchens cooking up special meals in the apartments of the Olympic Village appears to contravene the rules.

Competitors are banned from importing their own food into the athletes' village under rules drawn up by the International Olympic Committee that are designed, ironically, to police the use of illegal substances.