A caveat for winter Olympians – beware of Chinese meat

Doping watchdog issues warning ‘only to eat at places given the all-clear by event organisers’

We were standing in the line of duty and suitably disguised behind dark sunglasses when our order arrived in two green-striped boxes decorated with that unmistakable yellow capital M. The last place even the non-devout among us want to be seen during this absurdity – also known as Veganuary – is down the mountain at Carrickmines in their nearest McDonald's, despite having a good excuse rehearsed in advance and possibly of interest to lifelong meat lovers everywhere.

So we ducked hurriedly inside around lunchtime on Thursday, sold in part by the sign outside that read "Our same iconic taste – but plant-based", my partner in this clandestine taste test and I not yet convinced and already wondering out loud what Anthony Bourdain might have made of it all.

Those two green-striped boxes now open in hand, safely distanced suspects from the scene, we took one sniff and then large bite into the McPlant – the first McDonald’s burger composed of entirely vegan ingredients, presumably the green box too, all made to look, taste and melt in the mouth just like a real beef patty, in this case the Big Mac or the Quarter Pounder with Cheese (similarly priced too), even to those of us who haven’t tasted one in years.

The sesame seed bun and usual sloppy dressings – the mustard, mayo, slice of not-quite-melting American cheese – are vegan certified also, only the real test is tasting the meaty part in between that is actually pea protein: it certainly munches up, bloody, savoury, fleshy, which my once fervent carnivore partner agreed no proper meat lover would mind putting in their mouth.

Most elite athletes I know are still hard-core carnivores; few admit to being vegetarian. Going pure vegan is another matter, including being labelled as one. Novak Djokovic may be opaque about his stance on vaccination, just don't call him vegan, even if strictly speaking he is. Either way there's increasing evidence a plant-based diet takes nothing away from athletic performance, the McPlant evidence perhaps of the wider appetite for it too.

It's been in the works for the last three years, rolled out across all McDonald's in Ireland and the UK since the first week in January, when we all feel like giving or taking something up. It's also seen as the more sustainable burger in every sense, co-developed with LA-based company Beyond Meat, which since 2009 has been leading the global way in plant-based meat substitutes, and whose early investors included Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio.

It is estimated plant-based burgers make 99 per cent less impact on global water scarcity, require 96 per cent less arable land, than a burger which comes from a cow, its production also generating 89 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Wow burger, super-size me! Similarly with plant-based chicken, pork, lamb etc, although the issue in most countries including our own is the fact most people still prefer their cows not mooing in a field but served up cooked on a plate.

Taste tests so far have been mixed: Beyond Meat also co-developed KFC's new Beyond Nuggets, claiming they taste exactly like chicken despite being entirely chicken-less, only for New York Post columnist Steve Cuozzo to earlier this month describe them as tasting "beyond awful", some sort of bogus bird that would not fool a seven-month-old experiencing solid food for the first time.

Rival company Impossible Foods, which started out of San Francisco in 2011, also co-developed Burger King's beef-free Impossible Whopper, entirely plant-based of soy origin, only not strictly vegan, given they're cooked on the same grills as their regular meat products, same with the Beyond Nuggets, using the same utensils too. McDonald's say they cook their McPlant separate to all meat products, using different trays and tongs, to ensure no meat contamination whatsoever, still no great danger to the ordinary consumer; they won't die, it's not poison.

Only out there now among the many controversies surrounding next month's Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing – China's worsening human rights record, especially against the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region, the diplomatic boycotts and dangers of any public protest, the mounting concerns over the environmental cost of producing so much fake snow – comes the warning from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) to "exercise extreme caution" when eating meat or meat products anywhere in China.

The danger here is not contamination with plant-based protein, but banned substances such as clenbuterol or nandrolone, anabolic steroids known to be often used in meat either produced or imported into China, who by the way is now the biggest meat consumer in the world: between 1961 and 2013, the average Chinese person’s meat intake increased more than fifteenfold, even if not always knowing exactly what’s going into their mouths. Almost 50 million metric tonnes of pork is produced and consumed in China every year, half the global supply.

Wada’s warning to “only to eat at places given the all-clear by event organisers” comes after the German National Anti-Doping Agency told its athletes to avoid all Chinese meat and to seek an alternative; vegan or not, here they come. The chances of contamination may be slim, especially given athletes will be confined to the Athletes’ Village, yet the threat remains real: even trace levels of clenbuterol or nandrolone contamination can be reported as an atypical finding, and after that it’s up to the athlete to prove their innocence, or else.

American 1,500m and 5,000m record holder Shelby Houlihan discovered that last year, returning a positive test for nandrolone that resulted in a four-year ban. Central to her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) was her claim she ate a contaminated burrito, purchased from a food truck near the Nike HQ in Beaverton, Oregon, which instead of containing pork, as it should have, contained the meat of an un-castrated boar. Houlihan also claimed she'd never even heard of nandrolone.

Except Cas didn’t buy that, given there was no evidence the food truck ever served uncastrated boar, upholding the ban given her levels of nandrolone were between two to three times higher than they would have been from eating contaminated food.

None of this may be of interest to lifelong meat lovers anywhere in China, and there may never be any great appetite for something like the McPlant burger in a country of 1.4 billion people, only having something vegan on their Winter Olympics menu would mean one less thing to worry about, meaty red hue or not.