Let's see, toothbrush, track shoes, chef

Some Canadian athletes are bringing their own chefs to Beijing. But it's not because of the local food.

One of Canada's brightest hopes for a gold medal at the summer Olympics is taking his own chef to China.  But triathlete Simon Whitfield of Victoria says his decision has nothing to do with health concerns about the food in Beijing.

"The food in the Olympic village is fantastic. There was never any discussion about fearing the food there," says Whitfield. Rather, he says, he knows the chef personally, dines in his Victoria restaurant regularly and feels comfortable having him around.

Canada's Simon Whitfield, right, and Russian Igor Sysoev cross the finish line at the world triathlon championships in Vancouver on June 8, 2008. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

In February, reports circulated that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was so concerned about food-borne illnesses that it was planning on bringing its own food to China for its athletes.

The New York Times quoted a caterer who claimed he'd found a chicken breast in a Chinese market that was "full of steroids." The implication — any athlete who ate local food in Beijing could test positive after a performance because of the food eaten at the Olympic Village. 

"That story was blown out of proportion," says a USOC spokesperson. Nicole Saunches, manager of marketing and communication, says the caterer quoted had "no affiliation" with the USOC and the USOC "had no knowledge of testing by the caterer."  

Saunches went on to say the USOC has "no fear" of the food in China.

Yam omelettes

Whitfield and other members of Canada's triathlon team will dine on Victoria chef Cosmo Meens' yam omelettes and Thai chicken salad in Beijing. Meens will bring some food from Canada, but Whitfield says most will come from markets in Beijing.

Meens is the owner and executive chef of Victoria's Mo:Le restaurant. He expects to cook up to 36 meals daily for coaches and team members.

Meens will meet with the triathletes this month to discuss  food preferences and menus. He says he's not worried about local foods in Beijing and plans to scour its markets.

"I have a feeling I will be able to find some great stuff," says Meens, who specializes in raw food cuisine.

A personal decision

Another Canadian medal-hopeful has decided against hiring her own chef. Hurdler Perdita Felicien considered it, briefly fearing the possibility of food in China being contaminated.

A dejected Perdita Felicien vows to do better in Beijing than at the Athens' Games in 2004 where she fell in the midst of the women's 100 metre hurdle final. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press) ((Adam Pretty/Getty Images))

But Felicien told CBCNews.ca in an e-mail: "Getting a local chef doesn't necessarily mean the food will be better. I have been to the last two games and had no issues, and I understand the same food contractors will be used in Beijing."

Canada's best hope in kayaking also says hiring a chef is "a personal decision." Adam Van Koeverden has no concerns about the food in China. "I'm not really worried. If I see it, and I like it, I eat it," says Van Koeverden, who won a gold and a silver medal for Canada in Athens in 2004.

Van Koeverden says he ate in the athletes village in Athens in 2004 and was not concerned about the quality of food.

The Canadian Olympic Committee says there is nothing to worry about. "We're confident (our athletes) will be served healthy and safe meals in the athletes village," says COC communications manager Steve Keogh.

Other options

In addition to meals served in the athletes village, Canadian athletes, support members, team officials, family and friends will have the option of dining at Canada Olympic House, a restaurant that Team Canada has rented, as well as the new Canadian Performance Centre, where athletes can dine quietly and focus on their performance goals.

There, three Vancouver chefs will provide meals for up to 250 athletes and support team members per night.  Sean Murray, chef at Vancouver's Four Seasons Hotel, says he will concentrate on high-carb diets. "Lots of pasta, steaks and roast chicken," says Murray. 

He visited China in April and says he will be using local (Beijing) food. And he downplays the possibility of athletes getting sick or testing positive for steroids. 

"Contrary to popular belief, we found lots of great local product." Murray says he and the other chefs will personally clean the food and monitor temperatures. "I'm not worried," he says.

Robert Le Crom, executive chef of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver also visited Beijing in April. He says "the problem in China isn't the product, it's how the product is prepared." 

Le Crom says he personally checked facilities of food suppliers in Beijing. He also says he inspected their trucks to make sure they were properly refrigerated. "You always have to be so careful, it's a huge responsibility," he said.

Last month, Ma Lin, Director of Beijing's Municipal Sciences and Technology Commission "guaranteed" food safety for Olympic audiences and athletes.  Ma said nine farms in greater Beijing were designated as sources for major food products such as meat and vegetables. He said bar codes will be used to identify where the food comes from and when it was delivered.

China has also implemented stiff fines ranging from three years to life in prison for manufacturers of "substandard food."

Last year, Beijing games organizer Wang Wei said officials plan to use global positioning satellites to monitor food from production, to processing and transportation to the Olympic village.