FEATURE-Food safety an Olympic challenge for Beijing Games

Wed Jan 9, 2008 8:26am EST


(For a multimedia version of this story, click here)

By Lindsay Beck

BEIJING, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Pampered pigs or processed pork? Farm-fresh or greenhouse grown?

With China's food supplies under scrutiny following a series of health and safety scares, Chinese officials are taking no chances for the Olympic Games this August.

At the headquarters of China's product safety watchdog, a bank of screens shows real-time video monitoring of food-related facilities, including one churning out chewing gum and customs bureaux that handle food imports and exports. The monitoring station can receive signals from 1,000 facilities at one time.

"During the Beijing Olympic Games, the inspection and quarantine agencies will use the monitoring network to have real-time monitoring over each product to guarantee food safety," Sun Bo, an official at the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, told reporters recently.

China has launched a massive coding system incorporating everything from vegetables to drinking water after a wave of scandals highlighted corruption in oversight bodies and a willingness among manufacturers to flout standards in order to maximise razor-thin profit margins.

But basic questions remain over how food safety will be assured during the Games, not least the safety of meat, which has been a focus of concern over the possibility that residual drugs in animal feed could cause positive doping tests.

The use of antibiotics and growth stimulants to boost yields is common in food production globally, including in China where it is poorly regulated.

"It's going to be a major challenge," said Grover Niemeier, a Shanghai-based adviser on food and sanitation issues.

"The standards in Chinese meat generally fall way short of what is needed or is realistic to try to ensure food safety in avoiding false drug tests during the Games," he added.

THIS LITTLE PIGGY

Part of the challenge for Chinese officials trying to clean up the industry comes down to the very nature of farm breeding.

Hogs in China are typically raised on small farms and then aggregated, making random tests in any one consignment meaningless and making it almost impossible to trace origins.

It also makes it easier for producers to get away with lacing their feed with drugs like clenbuterol, a steroid banned in meat production in both China and the United States but which experts say is still commonly used by Chinese producers to boost animal muscle mass.

"It (clenbuterol) is in such popular use at the grower level, and there are few ways that it can be found in the food chain by the government inspectors until it is too late," said Niemeier.

Other experts dismiss concerns that athletes may fail drug tests if they eat meat raised on drug-laced feed.

"By the time it's ingested by the animal, by the time it's metabolised by the animal and then the same process goes through the digestion on the human side, it's pretty hard to accept that that would generate a positive test," said Bob McCormack, chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic Team.

Aramark Corp., which provided food services for the Athens Games, has confirmed that it is the official provider for Beijing, responsible for serving more than 3.5 million meals during the 60-day period of the Olympics and Paralympics.

An industry source in China said that Aramark had come under pressure from Beijing Olympic organisers to drop its initial choice of supplier -- a foreign firm -- in favour of domestic partners, as a matter of pride for China.

The New York-based company says it is still in the process of choosing suppliers, adding it was "very focused on the integrity of the food supply".

HANGING HOGS

In Beijing, confusion over designated suppliers abounds as organisers trip over themselves to assure Olympics food safety, without implying that food for the general population is sub-par. Global concerns over terrorism and the prospect of sabotaged Olympic food supplies have only compounded the secretive nature of China's bureaucracy and offer another reason for Games organisers to keep a tight lid on information about suppliers.

Last year, Qianxihe Food Group said it would be the official pork supplier to Olympic athletes, raising drug-free pigs in secret locations. But Olympic organisers later denied that any special pigs were being raised.

Anxious to allay food safety fears, China's Olympic organisers arranged a recent trip for journalists to major pork and chicken processing plants that serve the city's market.

But after demonstrating the production process -- giant hogs hanging from hooks, then eviscerated before circular saws went to work butchering the meat -- organisers admitted that these processing plants were not necessarily Olympic meat suppliers.

Li Zhanjun, director of the Beijing Olympics media centre, says meat suppliers have not yet been designated.

But with an average of 245 days to raise a hog to market, there may not be enough time left to breed pigs specifically for the Olympics.

In the meantime, stung by the international outcry over the safety of its food and products, China is making strides in improving its regulatory environment.

Fishery production standards to be introduced this year will tighten control over fish breeding, feed and drug use after the United States banned some shipments of farm-raised Chinese seafood last year over harmful residues.

A draft food safety law under debate sets higher fines for errant firms and would require food packages to list ingredients.

But with some seven months to go before the Games, time is running thin to clean up a sector that extends from farm to factory, to grocery store, to dinner plate.

"Is there enough time?" asked Niemeier. "I don't know that time is working in their favour."

(Editing by Megan Goldin)



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