Editorial: Sports Organizations a Potential Ally to Crack Supplement Quality Issues

By Len Monheit

Dietary (food) supplements and sports nutrition products consumed by athletes represent a rather small percentage of total industry sales, but a disproportionate impact on the industry as a whole, both for testimonial value, as well as the visibility when something goes ‘awry’. Awry can mean poor performance, but most frequently means either a real or alleged doping infraction caused by the supplement product. One only has to read Congressional testimony in Washington, headlines in California, or some headlines from the 2004 Athens Olympics to realize that the use of supplements by athletes is a critical issue not only for those companies focusing on sports nutrition, but an issue of credibility for the entire sector as it wrestles with quality control issues that might play a part in inadvertent doping. Most understand the price of failure in this area – how many see the opportunity that comes from a proactive solution that gives athletes (and consumers in general) more confidence in the quality of products they buy? In the case of athletes, this assurance involves concerns about part-per-billion levels of steroids and steroid precursors, and the more general concern about the presence of undeclared ingredients. The former is frequently a challenge, the latter, simply a matter of the law.

How large the real problem is (supplements causing positive doping tests) has been uncertain. Lines of communication between stakeholders (athletes, sports organizations, industry) have been ineffective. Patterns of supplement use have historically not been documented, and the official position of ‘proper nutrition and diet is required’ seemed to have no room in it for ‘some supplementation might be required’ or even that ‘some supplements are effective’. Recently, several US trade associations called upon FDA to enforce the laws against steroids in supplements (http://www.npicenter.com/anm/templates/newsATemp.aspx?articleid=13629&zoneid=16), and many in the sports community believe that since steroids and steroid precursors are now controlled substances in the United States, there is momentum that will reduce the use of steroids and the incidence of steroid contamination around the world, and this belief is shared by industry, government and analytical experts who have been tracking this issue over the last decade.

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Second Symposium on Supplements in Sport in Leipzig, Germany, organized and facilitated by the World Anti-Doping Agency, in collaboration with Germany’s Nationale Anti Doping Agentur (NADA). In this particular column I won’t go into the substance of what was discussed – that will be a broader commentary associated with the formal symposium outcome document expected in the next few days. What I will present are some general observations.

Sports organizations and WADA recognize that there is no practical system that will result in absolutely ‘zero’ risk to athletes – strategies for risk reduction are critical, however, and various groups around the world are taking different approaches. The issue itself is a global one, both from a global value chain (source of supply) as well as the ‘without borders’ aspect of international selling, including the Internet. Athletes, anti-doping organizations (ADOs) and sports groups realize that the elite athlete population represents a small market for many supplement companies, but may, in fact, be the entire market of specially developed sports nutrition products.

Around the world supplement use by athletes is ongoing and this will continue. ADOs realize and accept that the use of supplements is something that must be acknowledged (as must strict liability) and so any means to reducing the risk (or raising the assurance of supplement quality) should be investigated. In the UK, 56% of Olympic athletes acknowledged supplement use, with 71% of professional athletes indicating use as well. Of these two athlete populations, 72% used a multivitamin, 70% used vitamin C, 59% used creatine and 46% used whey protein products. This data is not isolated, and similar use patterns are expected elsewhere around the globe with more data becoming available and being communicated as our multi-stakeholder relationships get better.

The Leipzig symposium built on momentum gained in the first event, held in Montreal, Canada about 17 months ago. While the first had a distinct North American flavor, the second drove home the fact that the issue was global and suggested that the solution might well need to be as well. Approximately 50 delegates attended each symposium, representing various stakeholder groups and one of the key take-away messages I had as an industry participant in the most recent event, was the need, and more importantly, the opportunity, to dialogue with and interact with ADOs around the world as they sought to identify and teach to athletes ways to reduce risk and identify supplements that could be consumed with maximum assurance.

Around the world several programs have already emerged with many more likely in the very near future – as we work potentially towards some global system. In the Netherlands for instance, the ADO, NECEDO, in what they call an enriched HACCP approach, is working with NPN (a national trade association) and the National Olympic Committee on a program to provide products to athletes through certification and testing. The system involves identification and posting of batches of products that have been tested and found banned-substances free (currently 144 product/batch combinations (114 products; 35 producers) are posted) with about 10 new products being identified every three months. The website receives between 25 and 70 visitors per day. In Norway, the program that has been developed involves auditing elite athlete’s supplement consumption and formally approving the supplement regimen, then ensuring a season’s supply is obtained and formally tested. In Australia, the program involves product registration and testing, following which a product is posted as part of the ASDA (Australian ADO) list, while the supplement companies are required to provide a product guarantee. The website in this case, identifies company contact information for additional information about the products, and according to data presented by ASDA in Leipzig, program awareness is high among athletes, while ideally program participation would be enlarged to make more supplements available. Other programs with slightly different models are available in Austria, Germany and Switzerland and in the United States, in an industry led initiative, NSF International already has their current program in place with the NFL Players Association, and is actively involved in developing additional programs to provide other organizations (and their associated athletes) maximum assurance of supplement quality.

As I mentioned above, I will present more details of the substantive discussions which took place in Leipzig last week. Suffice to say at this point that an understanding of regulatory and enforcement challenges around the globe was well shared by symposium participants, as was the scope and type of products and companies that are ‘outside the law’. The interest in ongoing dialogue to develop sustainable solutions, particularly with new relationships including ADOs, analytical labs with significant expertise in this area, and industry is extremely high – and the outlook very promising.

There is a significant opportunity for industry on a global level to engage with external stakeholders for mutual benefit. At stake is not only credibility, but an opportunity to take a measure of control over our future prospects with a key consumer group.

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