What do Western celebrities and Chinese pig farmers have in common? On the face of it, not much, but one thing potentially connects them is the use of clenbuterol.
While in countries such as the US the illegal steroid-like substance is used by stars to rapidly lose weight, in China it is used (paradoxically) by farmers who want to bulk up their livestock before slaughter.
Athletes, however, are banned from taking it by the International Olympic Committee.
But such is the ubiquity of the drug in Chinese agriculture that the General Administration of Sports has banned its Olympic hopefuls from eating meat outside their training centres, says national media.
“No athletes can go out for meals without permission. We have to be that strict due to the food safety issue,” Xiao Haopeng, chief of the Chinese shooting team, told the Shanghai Daily.
It reported that in order to comply with the ban, marathon runners training up on the Tibetan Plateau in the southern province of Yunnan were raising their own chickens and sourcing yak meat from local herdsmen.
But while most Chinese would like to see the country’s athletes do well at the Olympic Games in London this summer, many have been angered by ban, which they see as further evidence of China’s lousy food safety record.
As readers of WiC will know, China has been rocked by a string of food scandals in recent years: in 2008 thousands of infants were poisoned after consuming melamine-laced baby milk and last year people were appalled to learn that as much as 10% of the country’s cooking oil is illegally recycled from kitchen waste or gutters (see WiC 140).
In April, some 500 people in Hunan province had to be hospitalised after eating clenbuterol-contaminated pork at three different wedding banquets. Their symptoms included heart palpitations, sweating and nausea.
In an editorial entitled “Allowing ordinary people to eat healthy meat is more important than gold medals,” Hunan’s official news website said people would prefer it if the country forgot about sporting greatness until it had sorted out basic problems such as a secure and safe food supply.
But, as is often the case, China’s microbloggers tried to make a joke out of a dark situation.
“So it seems if you don’t want to worry about the food’s safety, you should enroll you kids in the national sports programme,” weibo user Classicwords wrote on his account.
“You never know, they might even grow up to be an Olympic champion as well,” he quipped.
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