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Why Shanghai swimmers shun pork dumplings

How Hwee Young / EPA

Members of the USA synchronised swimming team train ahead of the FINA Swimming World Championships at the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China on Wednesday.

By NBC News’ Ed Flanagan

BEIJING – Part of the fun of being a world-class athlete traveling to foreign cities is the chance to go out and sample the local fare.

Not so this year for the over 2,000 athletes from at least 181 countries in Shanghai to compete in the 14th FINA World Aquatics Championships.

There will be no pork dumplings, pork lo mein or even beef with broccoli for the swimmers, divers and water polo players.

That’s because Chinese beef and pork have been linked to steroid use in cattle and pigs, and a recent study conducted by a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Cologne, Germany, discovered that 22 out of 28 travelers returning from China tested positive for clenbuterol, an anabolic agent that builds muscle and burns fat.

The chemical additives are used by Chinese farmers on cattle and pigs in order to speed up animal growth and promote the development of lean meat in them.

But clenbuterol is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances and comes with a ban of up to two years for athletes who test positive for it.

The hard evidence from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s report is a damning indictment of Chinese food standards at a time when the government has been dealing with a rash of food safety issues all over the country.

Eugene Hoshiko / AP

The Brazilian synchronized swimming team practices Wednesday at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center ahead of the 14th FINA World Swimming Championships, which start from July 16.

In an effort to allay the concerns of nervous consumers, government officials have tacitly allowed China’s news media this year to be more proactive in sniffing out and exposing food scandals throughout the country. To its credit, the government’s move has been a welcomed development in the way China handles food safety concerns, but it also reveals just how much work still needs to be done to improve standards.

Meanwhile, Shanghai city officials will face an uphill battle in convincing athletes and visitors alike that China’s kitchens are safe.

Some high-profile athletes won’t be alarmed by the recent revelations, such as Michael Phelps, who is returning to China – the site of his record-setting eight gold medal run in 2008 – to compete after a lackluster start in his bid to return to glory in the 2012 London Olympics.

Like in Beijing in 2008, better funded teams such as the United States and Australia were taking a page from their 2008 playbooks and sourcing meat and other food products from abroad. The chefs, though, will have to load up their refrigerators – his typical 12,000-calorie daily intake was famously described and even self-lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.”

Athletes from other countries, though, will likely find themselves scrutinizing the food supplied by their hotels and certainly avoiding local restaurants as much as possible.

The stories of Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Adam Seroczynski will ensure that.

Ovtcharov, a German table tennis player competed at a tournament in China last year and nearly faced a ban when he tested positive for clenbuterol. He was saved only when his claim that contaminated food from his hotel had been responsible for the positive test was corroborated by similar results in four other German players who had also competed there.

Polish canoeist Adam Seroczynski was not so lucky. He also argued that contaminated meat had been at the heart of his positive test at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His claims were rejected and he was later slapped with a two-year ban.