Meat off menu for China’s Olympians

Athletes are struggling to source safe pork and beef as fears grow over the impact of additives on doping test results. Jiang Xinjie, Zhang Luyan and Wang Jingyi report on China's latest food crisis.
<p>(Image: Alamy)</p>

(Image: Alamy)

You might not expect a meat shortage to top the list of concerns at the Jiangsu Sports Bureau’s training centre. But despite careful rationing, three tonnes of pork donated by a local pig farmer a month ago is almost gone. China’s national sports teams are plagued by similar problems. 

Speaking in March, Li Zhongyi, deputy supply chief at the aquatics division of China’s General Administration of Sport (GAS), admitted that the 196 athletes under his department’s supervision had eaten no meat for 40 days. Instead, they had relied on protein powder and eel. At Chinese New Year, they “only ate vegetable dumplings”. Normally, an athlete would consume around a pound of pork and a pound of beef every day. 

This new wave of vegetarianism in the Chinese sports world was triggered by a “meat ban” issued by GAS on January 19. Specifically, athletes were forbidden from eating pork, beef or mutton not supplied by their training centres, while the training centres themselves were ordered not to serve meat unless it came from a reliable source. 

These drastic steps were driven by anxieties over additives. A range of chemicals is used to increase the amount of lean meat in livestock. But, as these substances promote protein synthesis, they are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Their use in animal fodder is also restricted to varying degrees by national governments wanting to protect human health. 

The sports world faces tighter rules than the general public. Li explained that, while state standards permit one nanogram of leanness-enhancer per gram of meat, professional athletes are not allowed to eat meat with more than 0.003 nanograms of these chemicals – that’s 300 times less than the rest of the population.

In the last two years, there have been a number of stories about sports teams taking control of their own food supply. The Tianjin karate squad became famous for raising pigs, and the national marathon team for keeping free-range chickens in Lijiang. The family of champion hurdler Liu Xiang, meanwhile, told journalists he had shunned pork for years so as to avoid leanness-enhancing drugs. Now, in the year of the London Olympics, the athletic community has been left without a steady supply of reliable meat. 

“Leanness-enhancers are terrible. Now even our athletes are at risk. I’m donating some meat.” Pig farmer Liu Yaqing posted this message online just after the Chinese New Year. On February 24, he made good on his promise and handed over three tonnes of pork – worth about 100,000 yuan (US$15,900) – to the Jiangsu Sports Bureau in eastern China. 

Liu, 40, calls his livestock “healthy pigs”. He rejects modern farming techniques such as compound feeds, and refuses to use antibiotics. Instead, he gives his animals soya beans, corn, carrots and grass, all processed at his farm. These traditional methods have gradually disappeared from large-scale pig-farming since the 1990s. His pigs take three or four months longer to be ready for market, and they cost more too. That means sales are low. 

When Yang Hongbo, head of food provision at the Jiangsu training club, drove his truck the 440 kilometres from Nanjing to the farm on a meat-finding mission, he found that “some of the pigs weighed over 400 kilograms, the size of calves.” 

“The conditions at the farm are fine,” he said. “But, we’re more worried about the drug tests.” The meat was tested three times – in Nanjing and at the National Anti-Doping Centre in Beijing. No leanness-enhancers were found. But that was just the first step. There was much more to come before the pork could pass an athlete’s lips.

The kitchen is more closely guarded than any other part of the training centre. A staff of 70 work here, and 70 different dishes are provided at each meal. Entry to the kitchen is controlled by a fingerprint scanner, which will only admit staff. Details of strict procedures for everything from disinfecting clothes to washing vegetables are posted on the walls. 

Meat procurement processes for the national teams are even stricter. Purchases are frozen and left in storage until the anti-doping centre has finished tests. Three samples are taken from every batch, with two to be retained until eight months after the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. 

“Even if nothing goes wrong,” said Yang, “you will lose your job for not following procedures.”

Germany’s anti-doping agency warned European athletes off meat from Mexico and China as early as April 2011. The French authorities meanwhile have ordered their athletes to avoid Chinese meat products while competing in China, so as to avoid failing drugs tests. 

Germany’s anti-doping agency told Southern Weekend that meat from Mexico and China tends to be the most heavily contaminated. 

At last year’s under-17 football World Cup in Mexico, 109 players – from 19 of the 24 teams present – failed drugs tests, representing 52.4% of all people tested. But the World Anti-Doping Agency and FIFA agreed this extraordinary result had been caused by contaminated meat. 

No players from the Mexican team, which successfully defended its title, tested positively. Apparently, the hosts, aided by their local knowledge, had stuck to fish and vegetables. The government subsequently made a number of arrests and closed several abattoirs. 

But it isn’t impossible to provide safe meat. An employee at one of the beef and pork suppliers to the Beijing Olympics said that online surveillance can be used to monitor the entire process from Beijing. At one point in 2008, someone who wasn’t wearing uniform entered the factory – Beijing was instantly on the phone asking what was going on. But after the Beijing Olympics, the partnerships between these firms and the national and provincial teams were dropped. 

In the four years since the 2008 games, sports officials have often ordered Chinese athletes to avoid eating outside their training centres in the run-up to competitions. So far this year, GAS has held two meetings on food safety and followed up with urgent notices. 

Then, on March 19, the Chinese Olympic Committee and COFCO Meat Investments inked a deal which will see COFCO provide meat for almost 1,000 athletes at 20 large training centres. COFCO will provide pork, beef, chicken and processed meats. However, as COFCO is mainly a pork and chicken producer, national teams will still turn to imports for beef. 

According to insiders, it took only 50 days to conclude the deal, compared to a full year for similar agreements in the past. It is clear just how urgently the matter is being treated. 

This article was first published in Southern Weekend, where Jiang Xinjie is a reporter and Zhang Luyan and Wang Jingyi interns.

Southern Weekend reporter Feng Jie also contributed to this article.