Eating meat contaminated with clenbuterol can lead to a positive blood test. So says a study conducted by a WADA accredited lab in Germany and released this week, findings that go some way to backing up Alberto Contador's claim to have accidentally ingested clenbuterol when he ate a contaminated steak at last year's Tour de France. Contador was controversially cleared of doping by his national federation this week on the grounds that it believed his story of involuntary ingestion.
The German Sport University Cologne (ironically the lab that tested Contador's samples from last year's Tour de France) tested 28 travellers returning from China over a four month period from 15th September last year to the 15th of January this year. 22 of the 28 tested positive for low levels of clenbuterol in their blood streams leading the lab to warn athletes of the dangers of eating meat while in China.
In a statement issued to accompany the report the lab attributed their findings to illegal farming practices which are known to be widespread in China where meat is a luxury foodstuff and commands high prices. Clenbuterol can be used to promote lean muscle growth in livestock but the resulting meat can be tainted with the drug.
In recent years numerous Chinese athletes have tested positive for the substance, most notably the RadioShack cyclist Fuyu Li who received a two year ban for testing positive for clenbuterol, which in humans helps burn fat and can boost aerobic capacity. The rider has loudly proclaimed his innocence and the Chinese national cycling federation had already indicated they would look at his case again in light of the proposed one year ban that RFEC initially said it would impose on Contador.
The fact that Contador was subsequently cleared had already strengthened Li's case to have his own ban cut or even overturned - the German study will only strengthen his hand further. Another rider sure to be taking a keen interest is the Dane Philip Nielsen who failed a test for Clenbuterol at the Tour of Mexico last year – another country known to have a problem with illegal use of the drug by livestock farmers.
While Alberto Contador and his advisers will no doubt see the German study as further vindicating their case others are likely to be more sceptical. While Nielsen and Li had both visited and eaten meat in countries with known problems with clenbuterol tainted meat, Contador had not.
His claim that he ate a steak brought across the Spanish border to his hotel in France that turned out to be tainted with the drug has yet to be backed up with any hard evidence. The receipt for the meat was eventually produced, but no trail back to a smoking farm gate has ever been uncovered – something his detractors point out should not be too hard to uncover. A German table tennis star who was also recently cleared of doping when his federation believed his story about contaminated meat eaten in China was able to supply proof about the meat, something that should be much easier to do in the EU where all points of the food chain are much more heavily monitored and regulated.
That point was forcibly made today by the association of Spanish livestock farmers, Asoprovac which noted, in an uncanny echo of statements so often made in the cycling world, that in 2010 the authorities carried out 14,179 controls and none found any traces of clenbuterol - even so as we reported last year a livestock doping ring was broken up by the Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands, bulking up beef cattle was only part of their activities which are also alleged to have involved doping horse races. Nobody has ever claimed there was a link between this case and the Contador one.
Asoprovac also confirmed that it had seen Contador's defence dossier and took issue with it on a number of points, most notably the assertion that the steak he alleges was to blame came from an animal that had entered the food chain without the usual controls - something Asoprovac point out constitutes both gross professional negligence from the abattoir, the veterinary inspector and the farmer, and a risk to public health which it was surprised Contador's representatives had not alerted the authorities to. The statement ended with the withering accusation that whether Contador was guilty of doping or not he was guilty of trying to clear his image by besmirching the reputation of an industry on which many hundreds of thousands of Spaniards depended for their livelihoods.
And before Alberto Contador gets too excited by the German findings it should be noted that the researchers were unwilling to extrapolate their findings to a sporting scenario. Instead, like academics everywhere, they called for a larger study.
This story is not over yet…
Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.