Food contamination is a risk athletes need to consider when travelling abroad for competitions. Meat is an area of particular risk with clenbuterol as a contaminant having caused adverse analytical findings in the past.
Clenbuterol is classified as a beta-2-agonist and is not licensed for use in the UK as it is associated with cardiovascular side effects. It is prohibited under section S1.2 (anabolic agents) of the prohibited list due to its muscle building properties.
The use of beta agonists, such as clenbuterol, is prohibited in the EU for growth promotion in food producing animals. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate carries out extensive surveillance for residues of this substance in UK produce, including cattle, sheep, pigs, game and horses, and has found no evidence of illegal use. Investigations have however shown that the anabolic agent clenbuterol is misused in some non EU countries by farmers as a growth promoter in cattle feed. Consuming meat from clenbuterol-treated cattle may lead to adverse analytical findings and side effects. Food poisoning, as a result of clenbuterol contamination, can result in: an elevated heart rate, nervousness, headache, muscular tremor, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills.
WADA is working closely with countries, international federations and event organisers to help minimise the risk of contamination. One example of this is monitoring the meat used in official hotels and restaurants in countries where issues are known to exist. Athletes should however exercise caution, particularly when travelling outside of the EU. If they do have any doubts, they should consult a nutritionist to develop a nutritional plan to consume no meat or only modest amounts, and seek guidance from event organisers or national federations for recommendations on where to eat.
Meats most likely to be at risk include:
• Offal, liver, kidney, pate (liver and kidney especially as these organs metabolise the contaminant)
• Processed meat – sausages, salami, etc as these can have multiple meat products and animal parts
• Raw or uncooked meats (N.B. the contaminant is not destroyed by cooking).
The risks surrounding meat contamination abroad can be exemplified by the following cases:
1. A road cyclist racing at the Tour of Beijing tested positive for clenbuterol five days later. The cyclist attributed the positive finding to the meat the athlete ate whilst in China. After serving a provisional suspension, the athlete was cleared of doping.
2. On a larger scale, at the 2011 U17 World Cup in Mexico a total of 109 out of 208 urine samples yielded clenbuterol findings. Only 5 out of 24 teams provided samples that did not contain clenbuterol. At least one of the teams that did not return clenbuterol findings was on a strict 'no-meat' diet. None of the players were sanctioned as they were able to demonstrate that the most plausible reason for the clenbuterol findings was meat contamination.
These athletes were cleared of doping offences, but only after demonstrating that the positive findings could be explained by meat contamination. Proving meat contamination is not straightforward, not least because the meat that has been contaminated will, in most cases, have been eaten. Finding evidence to support this defence can therefore be difficult, costly and time consuming. It goes without saying that even when athletes are exonerated due to meat contamination, cases like this cause significant disruption to an athlete’s season, particularly since there is automatic provisional suspension of athletes who have clenbuterol in their system.