Free Lainer Bueno!

To understand what happened to Lainer Bueno, you need first understand a few things about clenbuterol.  Clenbuterol is a popular performance-enhancing drug, reputed to promote both weight loss and muscle gain. Clenbuterol has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Major League Baseball and (to my knowledge) every other professional sports league with its own anti-doping program. We know that this drug has been a problem in baseball — as part of his plea bargain, former Mets clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski admitted that he’d distributed clenbuterol to dozens of baseball players.

No scientific study has ever confirmed that clenbuterol helps athletes get stronger or lose weight, but this drug does have proven effects when given to livestock. Specifically, clenbuterol is known to increase the leanness and protein content of cattle, sheep and pigs. But the practice of feeding clenbuterol to livestock is banned in most counties, since the drug can persist in meat after the treated animal is slaughtered, and meat contaminated with clenbuterol has caused cases of widespread food poisoning.  Symptoms of clenbuterol poisoning include palpitation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, chest tightness, shaking and trembling. (But note: it is possible to consume clenbuterol-contaminated meat without exhibiting signs of food poisoning.) Clenbuterol is known to have a host of other nasty side effects, in particular on heart function and blood pressure. Clenbuterol has been used to treat horses with respiratory ailments, and reportedly some horses have died from this treatmentYMMV.

Unfortunately, clenbuterol continues to be fed to livestock in certain areas of the world. Clenbuterol is widely reputed to be fed to livestock in China, notwithstanding the fact that Chinese law prohibits this practice. Clenbuterol is also reputedly fed to cattle in Mexico. While we have no hard evidence, it has been reported that clenbuterol is commonly fed to cattle throughout Latin America.

So, it’s possible that Lanier Bueno ate meat in Venezuela that contained clenbuterol.  Could this be why Bueno failed a doping test?

Until recently, the prevailing opinion was that an athlete could not flunk a doping test by eating the wrong piece of meat. WADA Vice President Arne Ljungqvist says that food contamination claims are “old stories”, and that he’s seen no convincing evidence that athletes can test positive by eating the wrong food. But evidently, Dr. Ljungqvist is a difficult man to convince. In 2009, China’s anti-doping lab fed its lab workers some locally purchased pork, then tested the lab workers. An unspecified number of these workers flunked the doping test.

More recently, the German anti-doping lab in Cologne tested 28 tourists returning to Germany from China.  22 of these tourists – over 75%tested positive for clenbuterol.

It’s hard to know what would convince Dr. Ljungqvist and WADA that we have a problem here. China’s anti-doping agency already advises visiting athletes to “avoid eating out”, a neat trick when you’re living in a hotel in an unfamiliar country. CONI, the Italian anti-doping agency, advises its athletes not to eat meat when they compete in Mexico.  Many experts now agree that an athlete can test positive from eating the wrong steak — this opinion is held not only by the WADA lab in China, but also by both German WADA labs, the Spanish anti-doping agency, the head of the anti-doping agency in Denmark and the former head of the WADA lab in Los Angeles.

Other experts disagree. One such expert is Dr. Christiane Ayotte, the head of the WADA lab in Montreal that performs all drug testing for Major League Baseball.  Dr. Ayotte believes that the low levels of clenbuterol measured in athletes like Alberto Contador are prima facie evidence of doping, and she’s skeptical that a positive doping test can be triggered by eating contaminated beef (though this was her expressed opinion prior to the announcement of the German lab’s test of the 28 tourists returning from China, and she may since have changed her mind).

It’s possible that Dr. Ayotte is right, and that the other lab heads are wrong.  It is a matter of doubt. For example, we still don’t understand how over 75% of German tourists tested positive for clenbuterol after returning from China, but the Chinese anti-doping lab finds clenbuterol in fewer than 1% of the samples it tests for athletes.  We suspect that clenbuterol may be given to livestock in Latin America, but I have no specific information about livestock in Venezuela. More study needs to be done.

But until we figure this out, Major League Baseball should not sanction its players for testing positive for clenbuterol. We’ve said it here before: baseball’s anti-doping system is based on the concept of strict liability. Once a ballplayer tests positive, he is sanctioned without proof of intent or any showing that the doping actually conferred a performance-enhancing benefit. But strict liability must be strictly fair.  We cannot fairly hold players responsible for the food they eat.

I’m not being naive here. According to the research performed by Moskowitz and Wertheim in their new book “Scorecasting“, Venezuelan baseball players are about 4 times more likely to test positive for drugs than their U.S. counterparts. I don’t imagine that all of these Venezuelans are victims of contaminated meat. Jeff Passan at Yahoo!Sports has written how promising teenagers in Latin America — and specifically in Venezuela — get performance-enhancing drugs from local agents (buscones) looking to exploit these kids for a quick profit. In the words of MLB executive Rob Manfred, we know that baseball has an “extremely difficult” drug problem in Latin America.  But we’re not going to solve this problem by stubbornly sticking with an anti-doping test that comes out the same way regardless of whether clenbuterol is consumed in a pill or a cheeseburger.  At least, not until we’ve resolved the doubt surrounding this test.

OK, maybe Lainer Bueno has no future in professional baseball, not with his .228/.336/.239 slash line.  But Bueno might want to be a coach someday, or a teacher, or a doctor or a judge. He does not deserve this black mark on his record.

Free Lainer Bueno.

12 thoughts on “Free Lainer Bueno!

  1. They say in China they inject meat with water for profit. Then again they say almost all of the stuff in China is bad for you.

    • China is getting most of the attention on this topic, fairly or unfairly. Note that problems of food contamination may not respect national borders. We import a great deal of food from China.

      • To be fair, imported Chinese food on average aren't much worse than other food, if worse at all, but a large portion of stuff found "dangerous" or "harmful" are from China. What's next? Frankenfood and MLB?

  2. Larry, this just doesn't feel good to me. It feels, "wrong". No really, dumping hormones into our food supply is stupid, and this is just one minor example.

    • Jonny, one thing I've learned about writing pieces about doping in sports is how extremely careful I need to be in putting these pieces together. For example: the best information available to me is that clenbuterol seems to be present in Chinese and Mexican livestock. There are statements out there to the effect that clenbuterol is used in livestock throughout Latin America — but is the reference to "Latin America" merely a reference back to Mexico? I did not want to state that clenbuterol is a problem in Venezuela, but neither did I think that some kid like Lainer Bueno should be sanctioned merely because I can't figure out what goes on in the Venezuelan meat industry.

      I don't know that the clenbuterol present in a piece of meat really represents a threat to human health. In fact, I don't know if the concentrations of clenbuterol we're discussing would have an adverse effect on human health. Take the Alberto Contador case as an example. The drug testers measured the concentration of clenbuterol in Contador's urine at 50 picograms (trillionths of a gram) per milliliter. 50 picograms is almost unimaginably small. It is much smaller than the weight of a single human cell. 50 picograms is about the weight of the DNA in eight human cells. Of course, there must have been more than 50 picograms of clenbuterol in Contador's system overall, but I'm trying to give you a sense of what we may be talking about here. We may be talking about something that simply doesn't amount to much.

      I don't pretend to be an expert in food safety. It may well be the case that we should all be eating organic food found at close to the bottom of the food chain. At the same time we live in a world where hunger is a real problem, and I'm not going to rule out of hand any technique that promises to produce more food more cheaply.

      These are difficult problems, and we'll do well to respect the difficulty. At the same time we can marvel that millions of our fellow human beings are willingly ingesting stuff like clenbuterol in an effort to appear more attractive. That's a pretty difficult practice to defend, don't you think?

      • I'm biased in all honesty when it comes to this. I have never agreed with enhancing livestock with hormones, be it for meat production or milk. The hormones are taken in by the consumer in amounts that seem to alter natrual growth in children. And that's not done willingly by parents I'm sure. Another big concern, look at the drugs found in your local municipal water supply. Yeah, shocking.,2933,336286,00.htm
        I know it's from Fox, but the detail was pretty good.

        • Yes it was from Fox, but it was an excellent article. Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. If I'd known about this article last week, I would have referred to it in my post here.

          We now possess an astonishing ability to detect trace amounts of contaminants in food and water. This technology was not nearly this good even a few years ago. So we're seeing stuff now that we simply were unable to see before. It does not necessarily mean that things are getting worse. The evidence is that when it comes to water in the United States, things have gotten significantly better. The adoption of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s has led to dramatic improvements in the quality of our lakes and rivers.

          But this is not the place to try and document the worldwide history of water.

          The point I'm trying to make is different, and you've helped me make the point: there can be trace amounts of performance-enhancing drugs in the blood and urine of non-dopers, as a result of general exposure to these drugs in our environment.

          • Yeah, it seems these things just don't go away. They eventually show up in other places. I figured it would interest you.

  3. So technically he could have eaten a piece of meat that contained that due to where he is from? The drug policy sucks…there is no proof to what these drugs really do. It is like getting mad at someone doing something and then not knowing why you are truly mad at them. Seriously, give this kid a break.

    • Sabrina, if this kid had been from Nebraska, I might still have written this post. The head of the WADA lab in Cologne, Germany has questioned whether there could be low-level clenbuterol contamination of certain water supplies, or of livestock feed. He didn't exactly specify where we might find this contamination. Moreover, these chemicals ARE going to cross national boundaries, what with food being imported and exported. Also, I don't think we can have one set of rules for guys playing in Mexico and another for guys playing in Wilkes-Barre.

      It's the hope of some in the anti-doping community that as their testing machinery gets more sensitive, they can detect an athlete's doping for a longer period after the athlete has doped. This is critical, as there are a lot of doping substances (ironically, clenbuterol is NOT one of them) that disappear quickly from an athlete's system. But so long as some of these doping substances are present in the general environment, the testers will need to set up thresholds to distinguish between intentional doping and accidental environmental exposure.

  4. unfortunately the morally inocent just get lumped in with the more numerous "anything to get ahead in life" group. With all the inconsistentcies its hard to understand why MLB continues to judge by the "its my way or the highway" mentality. And that the players union goes along. It sounds like both sides lack alot of information on the matter and if anything this just makes MLB look good because players are getting suspended and they can say their system is working. It seems though if a player who is absolutely innocent could challenge these decisions outside of MLB in court. One reason thats obvious to me they dont is the players they are catching could never afford or obtain proper representation. But it seems the issue could be argued as not only not having eneough evidence to suspend a player for purposely taking the drug, but also if the drug absolutely provides the benifits MLB and the WADA claims it has. It seems their needs to be more studies on the matter before ruining somebodys life because their guilty only by association.

    • catt, great comment! You've given me a lot to respond to.

      There are smart people who believe that the anti-doping agencies are mostly catching athletes who have accidentally ingested doping products. As we've discussed here, it's remarkably easy to take in small amounts of performance-enhancing drugs in over-the-counter medications, vitamins, food supplements, protein bars and shakes, herbal remedies, and the like. Athletes who do so are likely to get caught. In contrast, athletes who dope intentionally take pains to make certain that they won't be caught.

      MLB's "strict liability" policy follows the policy established by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Baseball's "strict liability" is actually less "strict" than WADA's — and WADA is forever criticizing MLB for this. I personally think that MLB has the better set of rules. In truth, it's hard for me to imagine how an anti-doping regime could exist without some form of strict liability — if every doping case required some kind of trial and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the system would slow to a crawl, become very expensive and take close to forever to resolve a case. Remember that we're talking sports here, and sports requires decisions to be made timely. We can barely tolerate the minute or two it takes to perform an instant replay review. Consider that in cycling, the anti-doping case against Alberto Contador means that we still do not know who "won" the 2010 Tour de France from last July, and that we may not know who "won" the 2010 race before the 2011 race is finished. That kind of uncertainty eats away at a sport — we attend a sporting event because we want to experience its outcome.

      I agree that the anti-doping forces pay WAY too much attention to drugs that appear to have little performance-enhancing effect. But in fairness, remember that we're SEVERELY limited in our ability to test the effects of these drugs on human subjects, and in particular on human subjects who are elite athletes. It is probably the case that baseball's list of performance-enhancing drugs contains drugs that don't enhance performance. But it's also probably the case that the list contains drugs that DO enhance performance, even though we don't possess scientific proof of this enhancement.

      Yes, my post points out an unfairness in the existing anti-doping system. If the system works the way it should, the way any good science should work, then the system will self-correct. We cannot condemn the system simply because we've learned that it needs to be corrected. But the system IS a failure if it's unable to self-correct.

      I don't have time here to explain, but there's just about no way for an athlete to challenge a MLB doping sanction in U.S. court. U.S. law strongly favors private dispute resolution. This situation may prove to be different in Europe — I'm expecting within a few years that a WADA sanction is going to be successfully challenged in an EU court under EU law.