As the head of catering for 700 always-hungry, high-performance athletes at the Jiangsu Sports Training Center, Yang Hongbo is having a terrible time finding beef that is "safe" for his charges to eat.
He's worried if the athletes eat the meat of animals that were raised on feed containing clenbuterol, they may end up being disqualified from competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Yang has contacted many slaughter houses throughout the province, and even traveled to Beijing several times to search a supplier that can guarantee additive-free beef.
"No company dares to sign a contract promising their meat does not contain clenbuterol or ractopamine," Yang told the Global Times. Both chemicals are added to animal feed to produce leaner meat. Ractopamine was banned in China late last year, but clenbuterol remains legal. Neither is clenbuterol banned in many other countries, including the US and Canada.
The WADA has banned numerous athletes from competition who tested positive for clenbuterol, but those are presumed to be athletes who self-medicated with the drug to reduce fat and enhance their performances. A large number of Mexican athletes also tested positive for clenbuterol but they were not punished as it was determined they had inadvertently consumed the drug through meat.
After the General Administration of Sport of China found excessive levels of clenbuterol in samples of beef Yang had sent for testing, his 700 athletes went 15 days in late January without beef.
"I was at a total loss and did not know what to do except stop serving beef to the athletes," said Yang.
The country's national aquatics team fared even worse when their handlers' couldn't find additive-free meat. The team's 196 athletes weren't served beef, pork, or mutton for 40 days beginning in January.
"The athletes ate vegetarian dumplings for Spring Festival," said Li Zhongyi, a vice deputy of support services for the national aquatics team.
With China hoping to again top the gold medal standing in the upcoming London Olympic Games, the government's sport agencies are being extremely cautious about what athletes eat. They are worried that high concentrations of clenbuterol in domestic meat supplies could lead WADA to find minute traces of the drug in samples taken from the athletes.
China's national health and safety standard for meats sold to the public is less than 1 nanogram of clenbuterol per gram of meat. While WADA's website says it has not set a threshold for traces of the drug in an athlete's body, Li has been quoted widely by the Chinese media as saying meat consumed by athletes cannot exceed 0.003 nanograms of the substance.
This much tougher athlete's standard for meat containing clenbuterol, which is almost 100 times less than the standard set for consumers, has upset many ordinary people who worry about what they are eating. Many people have posted comments on their Weibo microblogs asking about the apparent double standard.
While numerous countries allow their farmers to give their animals feed laced with clenbuterol, Nan Qingxian, former dean of the College of Food Science & Nutritional Engineering at China Agricultural University, told the Global Times there are fewer regulations governing the use of the drug in China.
He said that most Western countries require animals raised with clenbuterol in their diet to be taken off the drug well before they are slaughtered. Farmers in China rarely do this, said Nan.
"In China, meat is supplied by farms from many villages and they don't wait for the animals to excrete the clenbuterol. We slaughter them too early," said Nan, suggesting that traces of clenbuterol are likely higher in Chinese meat products than in other countries that allow the drug.
"This year the country has strictly implemented a meat standard for athletes," that contains far less clenbuterol contamination, Yang said.
Beef was banned from the Jiangsu Sports Training Center in January, three months after 120 athletes from the national team trained at the center and tests revealed the beef they eat contained clenbuterol that did not meet the standard for athletes.
Officials from the General Administration of Sport of China have also required all catering departments at sports centers to stop serving meat unless they were 100 percent sure that it met the standard. Athletes were also told not to eat at restaurants, said Yang.
In February, at least 500 athletes who participated in the national indoor track and field competition in Nanjing were asked not to eat pork, beef and mutton if it did not come from a reliable source.
"It affected the performance of many athletes," Yang said, "But it was an order from the superior officials, and we had to obey it."
While there have been many Olympic gold medalists who are vegetarians - including 10-time US Olympic champion Carl Lewis who is a vegan - many coaches and athletes in China believe meat protein is an absolute essential part of an athlete's diet.
"I kept the whole incident secret from the athletes. I didn't want to cause unnecessary panic," Yang said.
During the ban on beef at the Jiangsu Sports Training Center, its cafeterias served 60 varieties of food every day, and the athletes never noticed that beef was not on the menu for 15 days, said Yang, adding that the catering staff and faculty members ate the beef that had been bought before the ban was implemented.
The training center then prohibited all its athletes from eating any red meat outside if they left the facility to ensure the sports administration's order was followed. "We asked them not to eat meat when they went home," Yang said.
Ending careers and lives
"I love eating meat, and so did my teammates," Mei Yannan, a 15-year-old basketball player in Jiangsu training center, told the Global Times.
"I fully believed the training center would not allow any unsafe meat to be served," said Wu Nan, another basketball player.
While the young athletes in training have few worries about being incidentally contaminated by clenbuterol from the meat they eat, there are many athletes who have been caught directly ingesting the substance in the hope of creating a leaner, stronger body.
One of China's top swimmers, Ouyang Kunpeng, tested positive for clenbuterol and was banned from the sport for life by the Chinese Swimming Association shortly before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. He claimed the drug was in his body after eating barbecue while on holiday.
China's judo champion Tong Wen was banned for two years after testing positive for clenbuterol in 2009. Her ban was lifted in March.
Nan told the Global Times meats with excessive levels of clenbuterol and ractopamine can seriously affect people's health.
For people with no history of serious illness a small amount of ractopamine won't affect their health. But excessive ractopamine could cause metabolic disorders, heart failure that could cause death, according to Nan.
WADA's website warns that both China and Mexico have serious problems with meat contaminated with prohibited clenbuterol. The agency issued a warning to athletes last November asking them to exercise extreme caution when traveling to competitions in those two countries.
It suggested athletes eat only in restaurants and cafeterias that have been approved by the athletes' federation or the event organizer.
China banned the production and sale of ractopamine last December and so it should no longer be found in meats fed to athletes. Nan said there is only way to ensure that happens. "Make sure no ractopamine is sold to farmers and feed companies," he said.
Liu Qingya, 39, a farmer in Peixian county of Jiangsu, was worried after watching news that athletes don't have safe meat to eat. "How do they survive so much exercise without any meat?" Liu said.
He contacted the Jiangsu Spors Training Center and donated 3 tons of pork which in February. "I can promise there are no harmful chemicals in my pigs," Liu explained that his pigs were fed with grass, soybeans and corns and never with pig feed.
Liu's 3 tons of pork went through three times of strictly check and served for the 700 athletes for 10 days, according to Yang.
Finding safe sources
"Currently, we rely on our luck and buy meat from supermarkets but this is only a makeshift solution," said Yang who is planning to outsource his meat orders from a supplier that has guaranteed beef free of the additives.
After months of effort, Yang finally found a suitable cattle farm in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, where the owner can guarantee the meat he produces will meet standards set for athletes. "I am also looking for the proper farms that can produce us pork and mutton" that meet the standard, Yang said.
The national sports administration solved its problem with meats containing too much clenbuterol for athletes when it signed a contract with the State-owned conglomerate China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation, in late March. The corporation has promised to provide all meat consumed by national team members for the next four years. This included flying in the Chinese badminton team's own supply of pork during the Asia Badminton Games held in Qingdao, Shandong Province last year.
But athletes who haven't made it to the national team will still have to rely on contentious catering managers like Yang, who says he is still working on finding a channel of additive-free meats for his athletes.
"I figured out that I have to check the entire growth process of the pigs and cattle in order to get safe meat," Yang said.