Thursday, December 06, 2007

May be you take steroids not knowing and not wanting

A study set to be released Wednesday, obtained by USA TODAY and commissioned by Informed-Choice, a non-profit coalition of U.S. supplements companies, shows 13 of 52 supplements tested between July 2006 and January 2007 at a British lab had small amounts of steroids banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and all major sports leagues.

Six supplements had measurable amounts of ephedrine, a stimulant banished from the market after it was thought to be a factor in the deaths of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer and Baltimore Orioles minor league pitcher Steve Bechler this decade.

"This is very eye-opening," says New York-based internist Gary Wadler, a member of WADA's Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee. "Clearly, the data suggests things aren't fine. Either the laws are not there or they're not being enforced."

The real danger, beyond athlete suspensions, is the harm that could come from the steroids and stimulants found in the supplements.

"Everything is a factor of dosage and duration," Wadler says. "If you're not being drug-tested, you could be consuming these supplements without knowing you're taking anabolic steroids. The risk to your health is real."

Under the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, supplements do not fall under the same Food and Drug Administration approval process as prescription drugs. The FDA can take action only if a supplement is found to be unsafe after it reaches the market, as happened with the supplements containing ephedrine.

As the natural product industry ballooned to an estimated $22.5 billion in annual sales, according to trade journal Natural Foods Merchandiser, the laws remained largely untouched. But over the last year, federal lawmakers have mandated closer monitoring of the industry that should, the FDA says, lead to safer supplements.

Starting Dec. 22, supplement companies are required to report "serious" adverse effects of their products to the FDA, including resulting hospitalization, disability and death.

More stringent "good manufacturing practices" began to roll out in August "so that consumers can be confident that the products they purchase contain what is on the label," FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach said in a statement in June. All supplements companies must comply by June 2010.

The FDA "is always concerned about products that may put the public health at risk," spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said. "When FDA learns of a product that is adulterated or misbranded, including a dietary supplement, we will take the appropriate action to protect the public health."

Popular retailers involved

It wasn't the fringe elements of the supplements industry that Informed-Choice and its lab targeted. Their representatives traveled to various retail stores around the USA and a couple of popular online stores — and purchased supplements they thought a high school athlete would be interested in, according to Dave Hall, chief executive of HFL, a UK-based lab that conducted the study.

Names of the specific supplements and where they were purchased weren't revealed, but Hall says some of the best-selling supplements were purchased from popular retailers. Informed-Choice awards a seal to supplements makers whose products are tested through HFL. Executive director Kelly Hoffman says the goal is to get more companies involved in the movement, not to single out any one company.

"Naturally, no reputable company wants even trace elements of an unsafe substance in its products," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime advocate for the supplements industry, said in a statement Wednesday. "By law, supplements cannot contain steroids. It's illegal and that product is no longer considered a nutritional supplement, it's an adulterated product."

Contamination or tainted raw materials could be one culprit, but there could be a more nefarious explanation. "It's very possible a few companies could be putting steroids into their products" intentionally, says Jeffrey Stout, director of the University of Oklahoma's Metabolic and Human Body Composition Laboratories. "People get phenomenal results and then word spreads. Suddenly, the product becomes a big deal and it's flying off the shelves."

"I don't think it's a large problem at all," says David Seckman, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association. "Organizations like ours have standards. There are going to be people out there with their own Internet site that don't want to be part of an organization like ours. That's a very small percentage."

Ayanbadejo considers lawsuit

It's not known whether ALRI Industries' Max LMG, the supplement Ayanbadejo says he took, was tested. Ayanbadejo says he took the supplement with the words "Muscle Strength Hardness" emblazoned on the bottle for three weeks in January.

ALRI owner Author Rea says Max LMG stopped making the product in 2005, well before the study commenced. He said in an e-mail the product is still legal today, but he halted production because of "political hype demonizing (the) legal personal choice for non-competing individuals."

"I think the company was trying to be cute by creating something that mimics a banned substance," Ayanbadejo says. "It was labeled and nothing harmful was listed. A lot of companies tell you in one way or another that you should stay away from it if you're going to be tested."

Ayanbadejo says he's considering taking legal action against ALRI.

Rea says Ayanbadejo should have followed the NFL's supplement program, which steers players to products made by EAS. Baseball has a similar program with supplement maker NSF. Other leagues either dissuade their players from taking supplements or point players toward the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for information.

"The response of the players to this program has been very positive," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says. "The Players Association strongly endorses it and players on nearly every team have ordered products approved under the certification program. Most players appreciate the program."

Beyond Informed-Choice, other industry groups have offered a seal to show consumers a supplement has been tested and the company follows stricter manufacturing practices.

GNC, the nation's largest nutritional product chain, says it heavily tests its products and third-party companies need to provide certificates of analysis before their products can be sold, according to Gerald J. Stubenhofer Jr., senior vice president and chief legal counsel.

"GNC only deals with the most reputable vendors in the industry," Stubenhofer says.

The Informed-Choice study, however, shows how tenuous that reliance can be.

USA Today
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