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 treatment. YMMV.
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.