Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Beijing Olympic Games: China's Potemkin Village?

In 2001, after China was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, some people questioned whether China's human rights record should have disqualified the country from hosting the Olympics. Little did anyone expect that the focus of China's Olympic preparations would shift to food safety.

That shift began last year, following several incidents of contaminated foods and other Chinese-manufactured products, including melamine in wheat gluten, diethylene glycol in toothpaste, antibiotic residues in seafood, and lead paint in toys.

China reacted in late June 2007 to the series of reports and recalls by announcing a crackdown on contaminated foods. The following month China also blocked the importation of "unsafe" foods from several countries, including the US, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Since last summer, there has been a steady stream of news out of Beijing, all intended to reassure the world community that the 2008 Summer Olympics will be a food-safe venue. In August, the government announced a US$1.2 billion investment to improve China's food safety system over a 3-5 year period. In October, Beijing reported that, during a four-month food safety campaign, it had identified and destroyed 667 tons of "inferior and/or shoddy" food, and had ordered the removal of an additional 446 tons from the market.

But is this progress real, or is it a mirage – a Potemkin village for the benefit of the outside world? Athletes from several countries are holding their pre-Olympic training camps in Japan instead of China. And to Beijing's dismay, the US Olympic Committee announced last month that it has arranged to have much of the food for the US athletes to be shipped to China from the United States.

Since the February announcement by the US Olympic Committee, China has redoubled its public relations efforts. Both the BBC and CNN News have carried reports recently about greenhouse produce growers that have been certified as suppliers for the Olympics. On March 7th, the head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, told that "The safety of Olympic food will be fully guaranteed."

This guarantee, however, likely does not extend to food outside of the Olympic venues. Even some of the "bottled water" might be unsafe, in spite of the Chinese government's recent efforts to crack down on unlicensed vendors. I'll be watching the news between now and August to see how far China's food safety "great leap forward" goes – and where it lands.

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