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Forget Contador, Worry About Our Food Supply

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Yep, the Internet (well, mainly the cycling-related Internet) is abuzz with Contador’s recent positive test for Clenbuterol, a banned performance enhancing drug.

Clenbuterol is a non-steroidal Beta adrenergic agonist similar but more potent than epinephrine. It’s primary medical use is as a decongestant and bronchodilator (think asthma), however it’s more potent and longer lasting as a stimulant and thermogenic…meaning if used in “proper” amounts, it could help you breathe easier while letting you burn more fat for fuel…pretty much exactly what you’d want for endurance events like cycling.  As with anything like this, off-label prescriptions are reportedly growing to use it as a weight loss aid.

While Contador’s test amounts are far, far below that amount necessary to offer any performance benefit, undoubtedly this affair will remain as an asterisk on his 2010 Tour de France win, regardless of the final outcome. And if the flitter and twitter is any indication, it’s the topic of conversation amongst racers and fans alike. “Did he dope?” “Oh, that’s how he won.” And so forth and so on.

The backside of this story, of course, is that the drug in question seems to have come from meat he ate, yet no one seems to be alarmed or talking about how our food supply can possibly be tainted with such chemicals.

Personally, it freaks me out. Study after study has shown that hormones and steroids remain in the meat and pass through to us when we eat them. They also remain in the manure, which ends up dumping them (pun intended) into our water supply and vegetables. Sorry vegetarians.

I’d be willing to bet any one of us meat-a-tarians, whether strict or occasional, could fail that same test on any given day after we’ve enjoyed a nice steak (assuming it’s not organic free-range). Or Pork. Or show levels of some other contaminant from chicken or fish.

As Contador’s press release and conference mentioned, the use of Clenbuterol in animals intended for human consumption is illegal, so perhaps your local meat supply doesn’t have it. But it likely has any of the other six common (and FDA-approved) hormones: Oestradiol, Progesterone, Testosterone, Zeranol, Trenbolone and Melengestrol. The first three of these are naturally occurring, but synthetic versions are used to “beef up” the animals’ natural levels.

Should you be worried about this?

Oddly enough, the European Union, of which Spain is a member, has banned the use of hormones in meat as well as imports of meat from the U.S. and Canada since at least 2005. So unless Contador imported the meat, his supplier was breaking the law in more ways than one. And it’d be naive to think that other meat producers aren’t doing the same in search of higher profits and yields…who knows what else they’re adding.

Why did the EU ban hormone and growth promoter use in meats?

They cited the possible increases in the incidence of cancer, mutagenic and genotoxic potential of oestradiol and the increased residue levels of all six hormones in edible tissue in animals given the substances. To elaborate, they cited evidence that oestadiol is a carcinogen that exerts both tumor initiating and promoting factors.

And milk? Well, unless you’re buying some that specifically says that it’s organic or free of rBGH (aka rBST), then you’re getting a double dose of hormones. In 1950, cows produced about 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of milk per year. Now?  Somewhere north of 18,000 pounds.  Of course that’s due to manipulation of their diet (grain versus grass…a whole ‘nother issue), artificial increases in light exposure and selective breeding, but to be sure the mother lode of the increase is thanks to rGBH. This hormone has also reportedly led to a drastic increase in infections and ill health among the cattle, which made the farmers start using antibiotics.  Now you’re getting those, too, and they’re leading to increasingly resistant super bacteria.

Combined, these hormones are under fire for things like increased rates of a smorgasbord of cancers, early onset puberty among girls and altering hormone levels, to name a few.

On top of all that, there’s the processing methods and the FDA’s virtual lack of oversight or effective enforcement or punishment, which leads to E. Coli and Salmonella outbreaks, among others, on everything from meat to produce. Seriously, watch Food, Inc. and No Impact Man and you’ll rethink what you eat and how it got to your table. They’re also both entertaining in their own right.

Most recently, the largest egg recall in history (550 million eggs!) was conducted because of Salmonella contamination due to absolutely disgusting conditions that were, in my opinion, thanks to a lack of effective oversight. In reality, the farms are to blame, but government oversight is there because large mega-farm-corporations seem to care only about profit. It’s only fair to note that Quality Egg and Hillandale Farms (the two farms largely responsible for the outbreak and recall) are particularly bad examples that skew the overall contamination rates.


The lazy man’s way to go about improving your own odds of not getting caught in a UCI sting (and living more healthfully) is to simply buy organic meat and dairy. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s easy.

Of course, that does nothing to help with eggs or fish.

For eggs, and here’s where your starting to get my opinion based on years of reading but no time to find all of the sources to back this up so take it for what it’s worth, you can simply 1) wash your eggs before use, 2) don’t use the shell to separate the yolk from the white, 3) minimize contact with the exterior of the shell and 4) make sure they’re cooked completely. This reduces the chance of contamination because, basically, eggs come out of the chicken’s butt. Cloaca is the technical term.

You should also buy organic, free range chickens, but for an entirely different health reason. Read this book and I promise you will see why mass-produced industrial farm eggs are pure crap (yep, that pun was intended, too).

The less lazy way to do something is to take the CSPI’s recommended action and call or email your senator today and tell them to pass the Food Safety Bill S.510. They’ve been stalling on it for 13 months since the House passed it, during which time there have been 85 food recalls. Call 877-481-9966 or use this handy dandy form and make it do the work for you.

As for chicken and pigs, there are no growth hormones approved for use on these animals in the U.S. But that doesn’t stop anyone from using antibiotics on them, or from breaking the law.  Check labels, those farms that eschew antibiotics and such likely claim it on the label as a selling point.

As for fish, well, that’s tougher.

Some reports say the level of PCB, dioxin and dieldrin contamination in farmed Salmon is significantly higher than in wild-caught Salmon. This is primarily due to their feed, which comes partly from fish (contains the contaminants) and the fact that farmed fish are usually fattier (and the contaminants are stored in their fat). Oh, and to make matters worse, the FDA’s “safe” levels of PCB consumption are based in part on the effect on food production and not entirely on human health impact. Thanks a lot, big brother.

However, some methods of catching fish in the wild are either destructive to the environment or unsustainable. Or both. And the higher up the food chain a particular fish is, the more mercury it’s likely to have. The FDA has an extensive list of mercury levels for fish here, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a killer Seafood Watch iPhone app that makes suggestions that take all sorts of sustainability and health issues in mind…just check it while you’re standing at your local fishmonger’s counter.

Lastly, stick with fresh, real foods whenever possible. The level of untested additives in foods is ridiculous, and even though they’re tested for general non-toxicity, recent research shows they’re not tested for estrogenic mimicry (which means there are probably a lot of other things they’re not tested for). Trying to reduce the amount of packaged, preserved or otherwise adulterated foods is an easy way to minimize your intake of things that don’t normally occur in nature.

Enjoy your ride.

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13 years ago

We should worry about our corn supply too! Don’t forget, the corn used to make Landis’s Wiskey was tainted too!!!

13 years ago

It precisely issues like this that made me give up all meat 14 years ago. It just isn’t safe, despite what the industrial meat farmers try to tell you. I eat an organic vegetarian (vegan for stretches) diet and feel much more at ease. And am healthier in the near term.
If I can do it, anyone can do it.

13 years ago

the EU does allow Clenbutarol in beef and horsemeat. Google [clenbutarol equidae], it’s the top hit (a PDF, so I don’t want to link it here).

The larger US chicken companies require their suppliers to use Roxarsone in chicken feed. “arsenic is added to the feed of some 70 percent of the 7 billion roasters grown annually in the United States [using] approximately 2.2 million pounds a year of a single arsenic feed additive, roxarsone, to control intestinal parasites, improve meat color, reduce stress and stimulate growth during the chickens’ six-week life span.” That’s from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Is it a risk to the chicken eater? Well, the arsenic is actually more of a risk after biological activity converts it to a more toxic form, while it’s being used as fertilizer on surrounding fields. Google “Chicken feed may present arsenic danger.”

The biggest risk comes via our water supply, from runoff, actually. By avoiding meat or buying free range organic, you decrease your own risk slightly, but you help to reduce everyone’s cumulative risk. If you want to really reduce your own exposure, I’m afraid we need to discuss stronger regulations and oversight. A lot of people think that’s a downer. Me, I figure that’s one of the places were government oversight does real public good.

Because, yeah, whether or not Contador doped voluntarily, we’re all of us being doped, on some small level, involuntarily.

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