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Drug Tainted Food Is A Concern For Athletes

by Marc S. Reisch
August 11, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 32

Many athletes preparing for the Olympic Games considered more than their physical training; they also planned what food to bring to China. Antibiotics, growth stimulants, and steroids are often used by Chinese breeders to boost meat production. Some athletes fear those banned substances could show up in the local food they eat and then in their drug tests, disqualifying them from the Olympic competition.

Athletes' concerns are justified, notes Caroline K. Hatton, former associate director of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, which tests athletes for banned drugs. A number of published studies have shown that consumers who took blood tests soon after eating meat containing anabolic steroids tested positive for the hormones, says Hatton, who is now a consultant to antidoping organizations.

Chinese officials insist that the local food supply is drug-free, but at least one Chinese athlete's experience suggests otherwise. In late June, China banned top swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng for life after testing positive for steroids.

The star backstroker said that while on vacation he may have eaten meat injected with clenbuterol, a banned body-building drug. Although the steroid is barred for use by Chinese farmers, more than 300 people became ill in 2006 after eating clenbuterol-tainted pork in Shanghai.

To avoid a repetition of Ouyang's experience, the U.S. Olympic Committee has made arrangements to feed athletes at its training center at Beijing Normal University, about 20 minutes outside the Olympic Village. The athletes will be eating beef, chicken, and pork shipped from U.S. suppliers. Others have made their own special food arrangements, too, such as the Canadian, British, and Australian teams.

Leading up to the Olympics, Chinese officials said they had set up extensive farm-to-table monitoring systems for food intended for Olympic athletes. In addition, Wu Zhen, vice commissioner of the State Food & Drug Administration, says his agency has cracked down on illegal production and distribution of anabolic agents. And during the past year, he says, the agency has also penalized 321 websites that illegally offered anabolic steroids for sale.

But despite assurances from their Chinese hosts, at least some athletes won't take any chances. They'll wait until after the competition is over to sample the local cuisine.

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