Thursday, November 17, 2011

Did you see the back on that pig? Yeah, but check out the thighs on that chicken… Illegal substances and other food hazards in the China food system

Steroid loading?
I just ate a chicken salad at a local café down the street from my apartment here in Hong Kong.  Now I’m wondering if I’m going to test positive for steroids.  And there is a possibility the lettuce was laced with heavy metals.  Oh the woes of eating in China. 

One of the things that I looked forward to the most when moving to Hong Kong was the chance to immerse myself in a new food world.  Already a fan of Dim Sum and Cantonese cooking, I was excited to take my taste buds to a new level while living in China.  I imagined the plethora of various mushrooms, greens, squashes and cabbages that are a large part of the Chinese diet.  Fish, Chicken, Pork - - it all sounded great to me.  Then I opened the newspaper shortly after arriving and paused.

"Toxic Vegetables"

"Illegal Steroids in Meat"

"Health Warning:  Pollutants in Fish"

"Hong Kong Athlete Banned because of low levels of Clenbuterol in her system"

As one friend best described it, China is the “Wild West” when it comes to industrialized farming.  Very few standards are in place, and there is very little, if any, government oversight.  So it’s eater beware.

Steroids in Meat, Athletes Sanctioned

Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador and Hong Kong badminton player Zhou Mi have something in common.  They both have tested positive for Clenbuterol.  So have five footballers from Mexico and a Danish Cyclist.  But the levels in their bodies have been so low that it would be impossible to have any performance benefit.  Specifically for Zhou Mi, her levels were 50-100 pg/ml (picograms per millilitre).  For Contador, I believe the levels were even lower.  According to the experts, less than 100 pg/ml is not enough to have any sort of performance benefit.  The culprit is most likely not performance enhancement.  The culprit is in the food.

Clenbuterol is a steroid that creates a higher yield of lean meat in animals, and is a banned substance for use in animals in most countries, even China.  Clenbuterol is also on the list of substances banned by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).  Any amount of Clenbuterol found in an athlete’s system would constitute a doping infringement.  Which means a two-year ban on competing for the athlete. 
Looks yummy, but is it tainted?

But just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t being used in China (and Mexico and Spain).  In fact in China, it’s known to be commonly used in beef and swine as a way to get to lean, bulky animals.    A recent article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong’s English newspaper points out that the problem is wide spread in China. 

According to the SCMP, in an article from November 12th, “The famous German Sport University Cologne issued a warning to athletes in February regarding clenbuterol use in China. An investigation presented at the Cologne Workshop on Doping Analysis analysed urine samples of 28 travellers returning from China to Germany. There were low concentrations of clenbuterol in 22 of them.”
The university warned of "risks of inadvertent doping with the beta2-agonist clenbuterol when travelling to China".

WADA just re-instated the Danish cyclists and the five Mexican football players basically saying that their athletic federations have provided enough evidence to show that the steroid came from tainted meat.  Zhou Mi is not so lucky.  Even though the levels of Clenbuterol found in her system were minuscule, and couldn’t possibly affect her performance in a positive way, she doesn’t have the voice or the clout to get the decision overturned.   Contador’s case is coming up November 21st.  So we’ll see what happens on that front.

But in the meantime, what’s an athlete in Hong Kong to do?   Outside of owning your own farm (which it is reported the Tianjin judo team does), should athletes here be vegetarians?

Toxic Vegetables

Turns out, vegetables from China have tremendous risks too.  The Guangdong region, home to the Pearl River Delta, is one of the fastest growing sectors of wealth in the world.  Home to an exploding industrial area, Guangdong is also one of the most polluted areas of the world.  The area is also where the farms are located that feed much of the Guangdong province, and the nearby Hong Kong area.  And, if the rivers that are irrigating the farms are polluted, then you can guess that those same rivers that flow into the ocean create a toxic hazard for the marine life.  
Hong Kong's source of meat and produce

Regarding the Marine life around the Guangdong (Pearl River Delta) area, the SCMP recently reported:

“The Guangdong Oceanic and Fisheries Administration reported that more than 40 per cent of waste water discharged into the sea last year was excessively polluted. It found that eight rivers flowing into the sea off Guangdong carried 1.08 million tonnes of pollutants, including petroleum, nutrients, heavy metals and arsenic. The area of polluted inshore seawater was 4,153 square kilometres.
"Guo Pengran, a Guangdong-based expert on hazardous chemicals, said there had been abundant research showing that the water and sediment of the Pearl River Delta contained many heavy metal and organic pollutants.
"'The pollutants will build up in marine animals,' Guo was quoted as saying by the Yangcheng Evening News. 'What's more serious is that the toxins are multiplied through the food chain and can eventually damage human health.'”

From the GreenPeace website regarding the Pearl River Delta area:

"In 2009, Greenpeace researchers sampled and analysed wastewater discharges from various companies, finding a diverse range of hazardous chemicals, including heavy metals such as beryllium, copper and manganese as well as high levels of organic chemicals. These substances are associated with a long list of health problems such as cancer, endocrine disruption, kidney failure and damage to the nervous system as well being known to harm the environment."

Ninety percent of the food in Hong Kong comes from Mainland China.  Although the pollution issue is not just isolated to the Guangdong area, it is notable that over thirty percent of the vegetables sold in Hong Kong come specifically from the Guangdong area.  Additionally, over 30 percent of the seafood in Hong Kong comes from the oceans near Guangdong.  The problem is determining what thirty percent. 

Can you pick out the produce with toxins?
In the first few weeks I was in Hong Kong, I had been buying an organic brand thinking that there was some safety in buying organic.  After reading an article about hazardous chemicals in the food system in the SCMP one morning, I did a little research on the brand. The farms where the “organic” vegetables come from are squarely in the Pearl River Delta area.  Looking at it on a map, it’s obviously squarely in the midst of the pollution. 

What is an athlete (or anyone) in Hong Kong to do?

After talking with some friends, both expats and local, the general consensus is to not trust anything from China.  The risks are just too high.  It’s possible to have that level of control when eating at home; it’s just darn expensive.  The choice is: pay the equivalent of $4US dollars for an “unlabeled” chicken (most likely from China), or pay $20 US dollars for a chicken flown in from Australia.  I can pay $1US for a head of local broccoli, or I can pay $4 US for a head flown in from Australia. 

One Pricey Chicken...$175 HK = @ $20 US
Ok, so go broke eating at home is an option.  What about eating out?  Well, the advise from the Hong Kong Anti Doping Committee is to "only frequent reputable restaurants and stores."  What does reputable look like? How do I figure out who is using non-tainted meat and vegetables?  With the cost of food rising, how can I ensure that the Thai place down the street that I love, or the western café where I often grab a sandwich and coffee are making the decision to pay double or triple for their meats and produce than simply purchasing readily available meats and produce from China?

I don’t have answers.  But what I have found is that we are paying double or triple our normal grocery bill.  I buy only non-local, non-China vegetables, and most of my protein comes from overseas.  Nice carbon footprint – but it’s that or roll the dice with my families health and my reputation as a clean athlete.  When we eat out, we have to avoid the hole in the wall place where people are lined up around the corner for a bowl of something that smells really good. 

Interestingly, after the warning in February from the German Sport University Cologne regarding clenbuterol use in animals, although China officially denounced the study, apparently in March China started cracking down on farmers using clenbuterol.  So maybe that's what it will take to further clean up the food system.  We just need a bigger voice.  I can get angry and blog about the toxins in the food system, but truth be told is that I will also pay extra to circumnavigate the Chinese food system.  But others less fortunate do not have that choice.   Almost fourty percent of the Chinese population lives without access to a safe source of drinking water.  They eat what they can afford.  And what they can afford is likely highly toxic.