Food-borne disease could affect an estimated 300 million Chinese consumers every year.
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Last month in the 2012 World Grand Prix Finals, China's women's volleyball team fell to countries that did not even qualify for the 2008 Olympics, where China won bronze. The coach blamed his team's abysmal performance on their veggie diet, saying that the athletes had not had any meat for three weeks. The players were certainly not vegetarians: they abstained from meat lest contamination of chemicals such as clenbuterol interfere with their urine tests. The excuse was not as lousy as it initially sounded: early this year, China's State General Administration of Sports issued a document forbidding its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities.
The sports incidence epitomizes the rapidly rising concerns about food safety in China. Twenty years ago, maybe except for the handful of expats living in China, few Chinese would consider food safety a problem. Today, almost everybody I spoke with in China -- people I knew well and those I did not -- expressed their concern about adulterated food. My speculation that food safety problems in China have worsened is substantiated by the website "Throw out of window" created by Wu Heng, a postgraduate of Fudan University, to track China's food safety incidents from 2004 to 2011. In the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in sixteen major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list "the most worrisome safety concerns." Food safety topped the list (81.8 percent), followed by public security (49 percent), medical care safety (36.4 percent), transportation safety (34.3 percent), and environmental safety (20.1 percent).