Banned substances in sport supplements is one mole that just won’t stay whacked. On January 19, the Washington Post reported that a research team based in Los Angeles bought muscle-building products laced with illegal steroids though online retail giant Amazon.com.
Don Catlin, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Anti-Doping Research Group in Los Angeles, and his son, Oliver Catlin, announced that they had purchased in recent months eight products that appeared to be legal, muscle-building dietary supplements through Amazon. Testing has been completed on four of the products, three of which contained banned steroids.
Amazon did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, though Oliver Catlin, chief financial officer of the group, did say he thought the online retailer had been notified of the story before it was published. But, he said, "It does appear that they have pulled M-Drol off the site."
M-Drol, manufactured by Competitive Edge Labs, was one of the offending products. Searches on Amazon indicated that at least two other products included in the study – P-Plex and H-Drol, both from Competitive Edge – have also been pulled.
Oliver Catlin said the primary goal of the buying exercise was not to target Amazon specifically, but to shine a spotlight on adulterated products in general and on the wide availability of banned steroids in particular. He also said the question of what's legal and what isn't is not as clear cut as it might seem; designer steroids go by many names, some of which are on lists of banned substances and some of which aren't.
"Our interest is in protecting the unsuspecting consumer from being able to buy these products, take them without knowing what they really are, and put themselves in the hospital," Oliver Catlin told Functional Ingredients.
This marks an uncomfortable watershed for the sports nutrition market. Despite numerous U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforcement actions, steroid sales have now transcended locker room duffel bags and flashy websites festooned with glistening torsos and have moved into the heart of the online commerce world.
The big risk with steroids is liver damage, Oliver Catlin said, but there are a host of other risks, including hormonal imbalances resulting in gynecomastia (enlargement of male breasts) and psychological side effects, especially among younger users. While not defending the practice, Catlin noted that muscle builders who knowingly ingest steroids are much more likely to be aware of the risks and to know some of the protective strategies and products that can be used to lessen those risks. Having these products freely available on a site like Amazon puts them out among consumers who are not part of the bodybuilding inner circle.
"What about the high school kids who want to bulk up?" Oliver Catlin asked. "They go to Amazon, see this thing called P-Plex and think 'Oh, cool.' There's no information there to suggest that it's unsafe or that you have to use liver care products to protect yourself. That's what we're trying to protect against."
Industry expert Anthony Almada, for one, wasn’t surprised by the news. “What do retailers, either online or brick-and-mortar, do to actually scrutinize advertizing or compositions of what they sell? Nothing! Why should they? They’re not required to by law,” he said.
Sports supplements comprise a huge and growing marketplace. According to Nutrition Business Journal estimates, 2009 sales of sports nutrition supplements reached $2.9 billion on 5 percent growth over 2008 sales of $2.8 billion. For 2000-2009, the compound annual growth rate was 7 percent. Thanks to online retailers such as Bodybuilding.com and Amazon, a rapidly growing percentage of sports supplement sales are occurring via the web.
Demand remains for steroids masquerading as supplements
Many dietary supplement industry sources assert that these products are often purchased with full knowledge, and the “tainted supplement” defense is a tactic all too often employed by athletes trying to cheat.
“The majority of people out there who are trying to reach the highest level are not abusing steroids,” said elite-level cyclist Katheryn Bertine, who competes under the banner of Caribbean island nation St. Kitts and Nevis. “Those that might find glory and are guilty, they’re going to come out sooner or later.”
So where could someone – say a concerned parent or an athlete worried about unwittingly failing a doping test – go to purchase products they knew were free of banned substances? Almada didn't sound a hopeful note on that score.
“The only way you can do that is to have a product that undergoes post production testing for a wide variety of banned substances and the measuring tools that they use are robust, specific and can detect amounts that would lead either to biological changes or to the failure of a doping test,” Almada said.
“And there are very, very few products that would be able to withstand that scrutiny,” he said.
The Catlins: credible, long-standing testers
The Catlins have history and credibility in the field of testing for banned substances.
"I would say Don’s lab is the preeminent dietary supplement testing lab in the world for banned substances," Almada said. "Don started and ran the U.S Olympic drug testing laboratory out of UCLA when he was on the faculty. He also uncorked the BALCO scandal, which disrupted North American sports massively. He is a true pioneer and innovator in that area."
In October 2010 the Catlins started raising funds for an effort they call the Dietary Supplement Survey. According the group’s website, the intent is to: "perform focused testing on problem categories to expose dangerous new products. We will also conduct testing on a variety of randomly selected products to evaluate the prevalence of contamination and to demonstrate that the majority of products are indeed clean."
The fundraising, which has a $1.5 million goal, is going slowly, Oliver Catlin said, "but it is gaining ground and some of our friends in the dietary supplement industry in particular are very supportive of the concept."
"One of the challenges behind fundraising for this concept is that not very many of the Joe Consumers out there are even aware these issues exist. If you expose the issue and put it on the table the theory is that it will draw attention to the issue and draw some of the constituents who would be interested in this survey to support it."