A woman operates a pump to mist
tomato vines at a farm in Changping,
China, providing vegetables to the
Beijing Olympic Village.Tim Johnson/MCT
By Tim Johnson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
CHANGPING, China — Guards carefully monitor the perimeter of Lin Yuan's farm, where carrots, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables will ripen just in time for the hungry athletes arriving for the Beijing Summer Olympics.
"What is special now is the security," Lin said as he strolled out of a greenhouse and pointed to sentries at the farm's entry gate.
Food safety is a sensitive subject as China hosts the Olympics. It weathered global concerns last year about the safety of its exports, amid scandal over tainted pet food and toothpaste, and now China is striving to ensure that the food served to 16,000 athletes in the Olympic Village is healthy and free of contaminants.
It's going to great lengths to explain the care that it's putting into Olympic cuisine.
If security is high at Lin's vegetable farm, a premium provider for the Olympic Village, it's even higher at the ranches and livestock pens that provide meat for the village. Pork for Olympic athletes comes from 10 secret pig farms set up far away from cities, state media report. The pigs get two hours of exercise a day, eat organic feed and are monitored around the clock.
Given the extent of such efforts, Chinese officials naturally bristled when they heard that athletes from some countries — the United States and Australia in particular — were brown-bagging some of their own groceries to the Olympics.
In some ways the matter shows the delicate balance as China tries to overcome long-held foreign suspicions about the safety of its food without stirring up citizens, who may wonder why even the pigs get such special treatment when it comes to what's served to foreigners.
"It's a perfect symbol of what the Olympics is and has become for China. It's an issue of trust," said James Mann, author in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, whose recent book is titled "The China Fantasy." "You've got international athletes and their trainers, who want to control things such as what the athletes eat."
The stakes aren't trivial. Nations can see their prestige rise and fall by how many medals they win at the Summer Olympics, and watching a top athlete fail because of tainted food could derail those dreams.
Despite China's vast efforts on food safety, questions about contaminants still arise. In late June, China banned top swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng for life after he failed a doping test. The backstroker later said he'd eaten barbecue on vacation, and the meat may have contained the banned substance clenbuterol.
Often used as a bodybuilding aid, clenbuterol is prohibited for use by China's farmers, but it still finds its way into meat. In 2006, 330 people fell ill in Shanghai after eating pork tainted with clenbuterol.
"It increases the yield of the animal significantly," said Dennis L. Erpelding of Elanco Animal Health, an Indianapolis company, adding that meat containing the substance could leave residues in the human body. He said China "has taken action not to see it used."
After a New York Times story Feb. 9 said that U.S. Olympians would take some of their own food to the Beijing games because of fears of steroids in meat, startled Chinese officials bemoaned the lack of confidence in their country.
Since then, the U.S. Olympic Committee has said repeatedly that it trusts the quality of food that will be served to athletes at the Olympic Village, where most of the 594 U.S. Olympic athletes will stay and dine.
The USOC is shipping 27,440 pounds of food to Beijing to be served primarily at the high-performance training facility set up on the campus of Beijing Normal University, where coaches, training partners and medical and support staff will be lodged, said Nicole Saunches, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs-based USOC.
Much of the food comes from sponsors — such as Tyson, Oroweat, Hershey's, Maverick Ranch and Kellogg's _ and includes foods that either aren't easily sourced in China or are especially low in saturated fats, she said.
"We as an Olympic committee shipped more dry goods to Athens and more products overall to Athens (in 2004) than we are shipping to China," Saunches said.
"The USOC doesn't have any more concerns for food safety than we would have here in the U.S.," she said, noting a recent salmonella outbreak in U.S. produce. "Food safety isn't solely a Chinese issue."
Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat conglomerate, said it had provided a shipment of 4,400 pounds of chicken, beef and pork to the U.S. Olympians and delegates for use at the Aug. 8-24 Beijing games.
The U.S. athletic team "wants specific American cuts of meat," said James Rice, country manager for Tyson's China operations, adding that the matter is "not a food-safety issue."
Australia, too, is sending some food with its Olympic athletes.
"We're taking some snack bars, some packaged cereals and things like that," said Mike Tancred, a spokesman for the Australian Olympic Committee.
All Australian athletes have been instructed to stick to the dining halls in the Olympic Village and drink only bottled beverages.
"A lot of our athletes who competed in the (test) events up there have had stomach bugs," Tancred said.
The head of the British Olympic Association, Simon Clegg, said British Olympians wouldn't take food with them to Beijing.
"We are confident that the arrangements put in place for Beijing will amply cater for the needs of our athletes," Clegg said in a statement provided to McClatchy.
The private Philadelphia company that's providing food to the Olympic Village, Aramark, has catered 13 previous Summer and Winter Olympics, and is set to cook 3.5 million meals during the course of the Olympics and Paralympics.
Lin, the vegetable farm manager, tenderly displayed tomatoes ripening on a vine to a visitor to one of his greenhouses and described how he's providing nine products to the Olympic Village: potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, parsley, turnips and arugula.
The farm uses mainly manure and few chemical fertilizers, he said, relying heavily on natural pest-management techniques. It employs a sophisticated electronic-tagging system to track outgoing vegetable shipments.
Noting the security methods, Lin said that any problems with vegetable safety "won't be because of problems on the farm."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this report.)
(c) 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at www.mcclatchydc.com.