If you’re hoping that customer concerns about tainted Chinese food imports in full-service restaurants and elsewhere have disappeared completely, think again. They may resurface this summer when your patrons discover that officials in charge of feeding U.S. Olympic athletes in Beijing are bringing their own food with them. They say (publicly!) they can’t risk having athletes get sick from unsafe locally sourced food or, just as bad, test positive for banned steroids found in protein items raised within China. Think your diners won’t again wonder if any of the food you’re serving them, particularly seafood, originated in China?
When a string of food- and drug-related incidents involving tainted products imported into the U.S. from China came to light last summer, Chinese authorities responded quickly. Poisoned pet food? Antifreeze in toothpaste? Five types of seafood contaminated with unapproved drugs? Those incidents, plus much-worse lapses within China (i. e., 50 babies dying from malnutrition after being fed fake dried milk) were enough to get State Food and Drug Commissioner Zheng Xiaoyu executed last summer. Not fired. Not demoted. Executed.
Part of the reason the commissioner had to go was that China didn’t want to risk another food scandal while hosting the world at this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. To that end, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee announced late last summer it was taking extra steps to ensure safe, drug-free food for all athletes.
“All food entering the Olympic Village and other facilities will be given an Olympic food safety logistics code,” said committee executive vice president Wang Wei. “Also, the food transportation vehicles will be globally positioned and tracked. The whole process will be monitored from the start of production through transportation to end users.”
That’s good enough for the Olympic Village caterer, Philadelphia-based ARAMARK Corporation, which holds the contract for the Beijing Games. It will source raw materials in China. And McDonald’s, a top-level sponsor and the “Official Restaurant of the Olympic Games,” will get its food through previously established supply channels in China, where it will have roughly 1,000 outlets open by the time the Olympics begin. During the games, McDonald’s will operate one unit inside the Olympic Village to feed athletes; one in the Press Center for the more than 20,000 media expected on site; and two for spectators in the Olympic Green, the main activity area.
Together, the two American companies will have the capacity to serve 6,000 meals simultaneously. It will be a nonstop all-you-can-eat festival for the 17,000 athlete-residents of the Olympic Village—except for competitors from the United States. The U.S. Olympic Committee sees the Chinese food supply situation as so dangerous that it’s bringing in its own food from the U.S.
To do so, the USOC had to establish a huge base at Beijing Normal University, outside the Olympic Village proper. Strict rules meant to protect sponsors like McDonald’s dictate that competitors and officials cannot bring food into the athletes’ village. But anything goes elsewhere, and the USOC will be importing beef, chicken and pork supplied by Tyson and cereals and energy bars from Kellogg’s. Fresh produce will come from Australia, seafood and many other items from Japan.
USOC officials know the facility will get heavy traffic. Athletes who have trained their entire lives for their one Olympic moment don’t want to risk ingesting contaminated food before their event. And they definitely don’t want to risk testing positive for steroids or other drugs that may be present in some protein products from China. A failed drug test gets you kicked out of many Olympic sports—permanently.
How big a problem are we talking about here? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already banned the import of five farm-raised fish species from China: shrimp, eel, catfish, catfish-like basa, and dace, which is similar to carp. These species can still be sold in the U.S. but must be inspected and proven to be residue-free before they are allowed into the country. Shipments of scallops, sardines and Pacific cod have been rejected also. Not because they contain pesticides and drugs, but because, as the FDA puts it, they were “filthy.”
What inspectors find in these fish—things like malachite green and fluoroquinolones that enable the fish to grow in China’s polluted waterways—is one thing that scares U.S. food officials. But their larger concern is how frequently these chemicals turn up, even though only a microscopic fragment of Chinese food imports are actually tested.
As a full-service operator, you always want to know where the seafood you serve comes from, and you should be able to respond to questions about its origin if guests ask. But if even one Olympic athlete from any county gets sick or claims he or she failed a drug test because of contaminated food, it will again throw the spotlight on food imported from China into the U.S. If that happens, your customers will want to know where you source your product. Be ready if they do.