WADA responds to questions received from New York Times related to clenbuterol cases involving Chinese swimmers

On Thursday 13 June, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) received questions from the New York Times in relation to cases from 2016 and 2017 involving athletes from China who had tested positive for trace amounts of clenbuterol that they had ingested through meat contamination.

Given the sensationalist and inaccurate way that the New York Times has covered the trimetazidine contamination cases of 23 Chinese swimmers from 2021, as well as the highly charged, politically motivated criticism of WADA and the global anti-doping system that followed, mainly from within the United States, WADA feels it is important to be able to describe the context and extent of clenbuterol contamination around the world so that people are not further misled.

Clenbuterol, which is a prohibited substance in sport, is used in some countries as a growth promoter for farm animals and, under specific circumstances, can result in a positive sample from an athlete who consumes meat from animals treated in that way. Over the years, WADA issued many warnings about this problem that exists in China, Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries. It is a pervasive issue that has resulted in hundreds of positive tests for trace amounts of clenbuterol in the samples of innocent athletes.

As it relates to the clenbuterol cases in question today, three of the 23 Chinese swimmers are among the athletes contaminated in this way in 2016 and 2017. Each of them was found to have levels of clenbuterol so low that they were between six and 50 times lower than the minimum reporting level of 5ng/mL that is currently in place, which was introduced into anti-doping rules in 2019 to deal with the extensive issue of clenbuterol contamination in meat.

These cases were reviewed by the relevant International Federation, World Aquatics (then known as FINA), and it did not contest the contamination scenario.

WADA Director General Olivier Niggli said: “The issue of contamination is real and well-known by the anti-doping community. Over the years, there have been thousands of confirmed cases of contamination in its various forms, including more than 1,000 for meat contamination in Mexico, China, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and other countries. The athletes in question were three such cases. They were elite level swimmers who were tested on a very frequent basis in a country where meat contamination with clenbuterol is widespread so it is hardly surprising that they could be among the hundreds of athletes who also tested positive for tiny amounts of the substance. In each of these cases, the source of the clenbuterol was confirmed to be food contamination.

WADA’s Contaminants Working Group was created for the purpose of providing expert advice and recommendations to the global anti-doping community with regards to prohibited substances that can be prevalent contaminants. Over the years, the rules have been adjusted to ensure fairness for athletes who unintentionally ingest a prohibited substance, while protecting the system against those who are cheating. Studies have shown that if you spend much time in China, Mexico and some other countries, your chances of consuming clenbuterol in meat are very high.

“The fact that the New York Times is only asking questions about China when meat contamination is an issue in many countries, shows again how this is an attempt to politicize anti-doping. From WADA’s perspective, we must assess each case on its individual merits regardless of the athlete’s nationality.”

The New York Times also asked WADA about some 2016 and 2017 cases of group contamination in China. In each of those cases, the athletes tested positive for clenbuterol, at concentrations between seven and 70 times lower than the currently applicable minimum reporting level. In these cases, reviews found that the athletes ingested meat that had been contaminated and found to be positive for clenbuterol.

Since 2011, when more than 100 athletes tested positive for trace amounts of clenbuterol at the U17 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, it was clear that meat contamination was the source of many adverse analytical findings (AAFs) in certain countries. In 2012, a study published by the Cologne Laboratory in Germany showed that clenbuterol was detected in 79% of 28 volunteers who travelled to China. Other studies showed that in Mexico 30% of the meat collected in various cities contained clenbuterol. WADA recommended at the time that every case involving clenbuterol at low concentrations in samples collected from athletes who were either from or had recently travelled to China, Mexico or Guatemala should be dealt with on an individual basis and, provided that the contamination was established, WADA did not appeal decisions taken to close these cases without recording an anti-doping rule violation.

Indeed, in one case of group contamination in 2014 where the athletes in question were tested in the U.S., the then Director General of WADA, David Howman, wrote to the Anti-Doping Organization in question (an International Federation) stating it was WADA’s view that the most likely scenario to explain the cases was food contamination and that accordingly the cases should be closed. As in this example, at that time, cases of meat contamination for clenbuterol and a few other substances, were often handled by closing the case without recording an Anti-Doping Rule Violation.

To ensure that the rules and the practice were aligned, in May 2019, WADA formalized this process, whereby if an athlete’s sample contained very small levels of clenbuterol (<5ng/mL), the result could be reported as an atypical finding (ATF) rather than an AAF and then investigated as a potential meat contamination case.

Despite the New York Times only asking about cases in China, it is important to stress that the problem of meat contamination with clenbuterol is not exclusively a Chinese issue. Nor has it, in any way, been kept secret. The issue has been openly and repeatedly discussed by WADA, including by the Agency’s Executive Committee and Foundation Board, the broader anti-doping and science communities, through advisories sent to stakeholders, and warnings to athletes about the risks of consuming meat in certain parts of the world.

For example, at the WADA Foundation Board meeting in May 2017, which was open to the media, the matter was discussed at length. At that meeting, it was reported that clenbuterol meat contamination was an unavoidable fact. The Board was informed that there had been 420 cases of meat contamination for clenbuterol alone and that, most often, those cases were closed without sanction during the initial review stage. WADA Director General Olivier Niggli told the Board and assembled media that those cases did not result in sanctions because they needed to be dealt with pragmatically as it would not be fair to athletes to hold them accountable for eating tainted meat when they had absolutely no control over what was in the meat.

WADA’s current guidance concerning contamination cases related to meat and diuretics can be found here