Editorial: "It’s not my Problem"

By Len Monheit

I’ve been doing some reflecting on the subject of accountability, and with that subject ‘top of mind’, have reviewed a number of recent posts, stories and issues, around the world, to see how frequently responsibility and accountability come into play.

It’s very easy, and sometimes far too convenient, to cite unfair competitive pressures and practices, negative media or economic climate as the root cause of poor corporate performance or the decline of a product or category. (Ironically, while at the same time, other organizations, with more vision and commitment, or possibly numerous other factors, continue to succeed.)

Other factors which might be involved in negative events might include regulations (or lack thereof), legislation, plain and simple bias, and lack of understanding.

Blaming regulatory agencies or legislators is quite easy, as is blaming the media for either distorted or misleading coverage. Some would say that “it’s not our fault that companies have overtly abused existing guidelines and laws- these are merely outliers and in some cases criminals”, they argue. “The ‘real’ industry is a responsible one”. The argument is intended to place an immediate distance between the culprits and the ‘rest’ of the legitimate industry, but does it? Media coverage would seem to suggest that distinction and distance is not being adequately developed. Blaming ‘others’, in this case, doesn’t seem to work.

It’s easy to criticize Consumerlab.com for pointing out that products on the market do not meet label claim (whose ‘side’ are they on anyway), or the pharmaceutical industry for effectively ‘killing’ positive science on our products. Not only is the damage done relatively quickly, the ‘counter’ story or argument doesn’t get an adequate hearing in the mainstream. A negative study will get many times the visibility of a positive one. The financial power and influence of larger sectors will obviously have an impact on media coverage in general.

The issue of blame gets a bit intense at times. For instance, elite athletes, with careers at stake, train carefully and seek every edge in order to compete effectively. Some go over the ‘edge’, as recent inquiries document, deliberately using illegal or banned substances. And then the blame parade begins. Athletes ‘blame’ supplements, at the same time as industry blames athletes and sports organizations for not disclosing alleged products and companies, but also for using such unethical means in order to enhance performance. Industry also blames FDA for not enforcing more effectively. In some case, the blame parade has gone so far as to accuse athletes of deliberately spiking their own supplements in order to support their contention that a positive doping result was due to the supplement.

Blame doesn’t usually solve problems, and it certainly doesn’t in this case where there are several aspects of resolution that need to be considered. Action and commitment do generate solutions, and recently, to be fair, there have been enhanced efforts. To begin with, the sports community (WADA and anti-doping agencies) must be active in its testing and punishment. Next, it must be active in its education. Both of these are ongoing efforts, although these efforts are fundamentally challenged by those in the sports community who refuse to believe that athletes currently do take supplements, and that athletes, like any of us, are powerfully influenced by friends and peers.

Just how big is this contaminated sports supplements problem? Is it as big as the coverage would make it out to be? Whose problem really is it? If it’s even partially ours, how does ‘it’ get fixed’?

The responses one gets, in and out of industry, vary significantly and lead to other questions: Is the problem with professional tennis nandrolone positives relevant to a vitamin manufacturer? Is an athlete deliberately taking a banned substance and alleging supplement contamination going to impact my bottom line? Why should I care? If my product is ’legal’, why should I worry? What can I do about it anyway?

The big question standing out is, “ What percentage of positive doping tests are really due to ‘contamination’?”, a question that can only be answered through enhanced dialogue with the sports community so that the nature and scope of the problem can be better understood. Until that question does get answered, though, the association between positive doping tests and ‘supplements’ continues to exist, and to be exploited, so saying, “it’s not my problem” is not a viable excuse if you are in the supplements industry.

Obviously, FDA must be held accountable for enforcement – if a supplement is contaminated, it should be identified and the law must be enforced. Industry associations have begun calling for such disclosure and enforcement, and if recent dialogue between anti-doping organizations and the industry is any indication, mechanisms might be developed where both the sports community and industry work together to demand such enforcement.

The situation is extremely tricky when a confirmed supplement contamination issue appears in the sports world. Presumably, the contamination is due to 1) deliberate addition (and non-identification) of banned ingredients to a product, 2) inadvertent cross-contamination due to manufacturing, 3) raw material sourcing practices and issues.

Blame and responsibility are quite clear in the first case. The product is illegal (almost everywhere in the world) and enforcement of the law is clearly called for. And tarnishing an entire industry for a deliberate illegal practice on the part of one operation is quite unreasonable.

Less clear are the other circumstances, where low level ‘impurities’ can theoretically be the issue. One would hope though, from an industry standpoint, that responsible manufacturers following GMP’s have practices in place for both manufacturing and sourcing, to reduce the likelihood of such issues occurring. We all know though, that there are some manufacturers (out there) that do not have such practices in place.

How big is this problem and whose is it? Is it the problem of the sports community who is so sensitive to minute amounts of these banned substances and needs to continue to suggest that athletes not use supplements and therefore not expose themselves to these unavoidable risks?

Is it the athletes problem, with a recommendation from industry being, well we don’t care, take the product and take the risk?

Or is it an industry problem, with identification of those companies committed to serving this user community required?

Or is it in fact a shared problem, with all stakeholders obligated to develop clarity on the issue and scope, and then collaborative solutions that might minimize risk and damage – to market, reputation, careers and fundamentally – health.

Even companies not involved in sports products per se are affected by this issue. The headline doesn’t usually read ‘sports supplement’. More frequently it reads ‘dietary supplement’ or just plain ‘supplement’.

Saying “it’s not my problem” just doesn’t wash.

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