What does a Tour de France champion have in common with some Chinese pigs? They appear to have ingested the same steroid, clenbuterol, which purportedly eliminates fat and grows muscle.
Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has been dogged by a clenbuterol doping case.
And in recent months the additive has earned notoriety in China after a string of people got sick from eating pork products full of it. Hundreds took ill in one incident in March, and this week, 286 people sought medical help in Hunan province after eating pork contaminated with ractopamine, a chemical very similar to clenbuterol.
Chinese livestock farmers began using clenbuterol in pig feed in the late 1980s to boost growth and get animals to market faster, but it was banned in 2002 as the health risks of eating the meat became better understood. Clenbuterol-tainted meat can cause dizziness, headaches, hand tremors, and other unpleasantness. It's especially risky for people with heart troubles.
China's melamine in milk powder fiasco of 2008, in which six babies died and hundreds of thousands were sickened, is still fresh in the minds of consumers, so there's been an understandable outcry to the latest revelations.
The Chinese government, which has gotten a lot better at monitoring the food supply since the melamine mess, admitted this week that the current food safety testing methodology is still insufficient, according to China Daily, a state-run newspaper.
Now, China produces an unbelievable number of pigs every year – nearly 450 million in 2008, according to the United Nations, while the U.S. produced just 65 million. That makes keeping track of all the pork flooding the market extremely difficult.
While some producers will undoubtedly be tempted to keep cutting corners to boost the growth and lean meat of their pigs, the government – ever conscious of its international image – has every incentive to sniff out and punish the rogue producers.
But some other countries aren't waiting around for that to happen. German athletes were advised this month to avoid eating meat while in China so they wouldn't be accidentally doped.
That's an overreaction, says the Chinese government. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.