Also known as “lean meat powder”, Clenbuterol is added to animal feed to lower the fat content of meat. It speeds up muscle-building and the burning of fat, resulting in leaner meat. When it is fed to pigs it also produces pinker meat, leading consumers to believe the pork they are buying is fresher than it is.
Almost 50 million metric tonnes of pork is produced and consumed in China every year, half the global supply.
Despite having been banned by the government, Clenbuterol is still widely used by Chinese pig farmers, who are said to stop adding it to feed several weeks before the animals are slaughtered, to avoid detection.
Clenbuterol is known to cause stomach pains and heart palpitations, and can cause damage to the nervous and cardiovascular systems.
Last year 13 people in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, became ill after eating snakes that had been fed with frogs that had been given Clenbuterol. In February 2009, 70 were poisoned after eating pig offal in Guangzhou province, while in 2006 more than 300 fell ill after consuming contaminated meat.
The substance’s muscle-building properties also make it popular with athletes and bodybuilders, but it is a banned substance in competitive sport. Consumption of meat containing Clenbuterol has been blamed for triggering positive results in doping tests in the past.
Clenbuterol poisonings are a major problem in smaller communities, where food inspections are less stringently enforced.
“It’s not reported frequently, so people sometimes think it’s not a big issue, but actually it’s quite widespread,” said Pan Chenjun, a senior industry analyst with Rabobank in Beijing.