Friday, August 22, 2008

A hard course to row: the colossal task of making food safe in China

The heartbreaking spectacle of New Zealand Olympic rower Mahe Drysdale pulling to the front of the field in the finals of the single sculls and then fading only 250 m from the finish will be hard to forget, no matter which country you support. We have all experienced the debilitating effects of food poisoning and some of us know how it feels to go beyond our physical limits, though perhaps at a much lower level of competition.

Drysdale apparently suffered a food borne infection that left him unable to eat and severely dehydrated. These are common sequelae of food poisoning. The normal way of dealing with this is rest and careful intake of suitable rehydration fluids. To go out and exercise strenuously in high temperatures would definitely not be recommended. That he did is a testament to Mahe’s true grit and determination.

It seems that Drysdale was not the only Olympian to suffer from food poisoning. About 15% of the U.S. track team also became ill, despite their team managers having taken precautions to protect them. Large quantities of food were imported into China from the United States to reduce the risk from eating local food. However, the track team spent a period of training in Dalian, 300km from the Olympic Village and did not have access to the imported food. The infections could not be attributed definitively to food, according to a chef brought from the U.S. to prepare the team’s meals. He suggested that water used to prepare the food might have been the source of contamination. The team doctor described the illnesses as “normal stomach bugs… not widespread… not out of the ordinary for international trips”.

Whatever the explanation, to find 15% of a very healthy population succumbing to gastro-intestinal illness in such a short period suggests to me a food or water borne infection or indirect contact with infective faecal matter, perhaps via an unclean restroom surface. (Norovirus is often transmitted in this way, though at this stage there is no indication that the team contracted Norovirus).

It is actually quite difficult to avoid all possible sources of infection. Drinking only beer, wine, hot tea or sealed bottles of water and eating only hot foods helps, but also means that you miss many wonderful culinary experiences. Even fresh fruit may have been washed in contaminated water before being sliced and this has sometimes been shown to be the vector for intestinal pathogens.

China has tried to provide safe food for teams and spectators at the Olympics. Unfortunately, their approach illustrates the enormity of the task and the collateral damage of draconian measures. John Garnaut, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15th August, told of chefs and hoteliers across Beijing being forbidden to purchase foods from their normal suppliers. Fresh and processed foods could be bought only from a Government-approved list of 64 suppliers. This effectively gave those favoured suppliers a licence to print money, so costs have gone up by as much as 1200 per cent. Though it has avoided food scandals so far, there is no guarantee that food is any safer.

In a parallel to the problem of fake luxury goods, it will require a long process of education and rooting out of corrupt food suppliers - those who use substandard materials, illegal chemicals and inadequate processes to make a fast buck - before we can be reasonably sure that food in China will be as safe, microbiologically and chemically, as our food here in New Zealand.

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