In a sports-crazed culture, doping scandals cast a long shadow over supplement industry

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dietary supplement

Jack3D, marketed by USPLabs, at one time contained DMAA, a stimulant-like ingredient pioneered by chemist Patrick Arnold, who was linked to the BALCO steroid scandal in baseball.
Jack3D, marketed by USPLabs, at one time contained DMAA, a stimulant-like ingredient pioneered by chemist Patrick Arnold, who was linked to the BALCO steroid scandal in baseball.
Doping scandals in the sports realm have had a hangover effect for dietary supplements, one longtime industry observer asserts.  In his view it has created a climate in which decision makers have more easily bought in to the narrative of a dangerously under-regulated industry promulgated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The Year of Schneiderman

The year 2015 will go down in the annals of the industry as The Year of Schneiderman.  But the problems his actions have created for the industry and the vulnerabilities he has exposed have roots that far predate his first actions in February of this year, and in some cases even predate the advent of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, said Mike O’Keeffe, a reporter for the New York Daily News ​who has spent years as part of an investigative team looking into various aspects of the sports industry, including the widespread doping scandals.

O’Keeffe has a unique view of the industry, in that he (perhaps alone among reporters at major US daily newspapers) spent several years early in his career as a trade journalist within the industry as a writer for New Hope Natural Media’s publication Natural Food Merchandiser​.  So O’Keeffe is intimately aware of the challenges dietary supplement companies face, and is also familiar with the regulation of the category and doesn’t automatically pull the ‘unregulated industry’ trigger as so many of his peers are wont to do.

Ephedra episode

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Michael O'Keeffe

“My first main foray into supplements and their use in sports came when I first started working at the ​Daily News and a colleague suggested we do a story on athletes and their use of dietary supplements. My view of the industry from my time at ​NFM was that it was a basically good industry with some bad actors. My colleague’s view was that athletes were basically dumb and they would take whatever the guy next to them was taking. There was this herd mentality, and he thought that was a danger with products coming out of an industry that was basically unregulated,” ​O’Keeffe told NutraIngredients-USA.

The story blew up big time with the deaths of Minnesota Vikings lineman Corey Stringer and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher.  In both cases medical examiners linked their deaths to supplements containing ephedra, which was subsequently banned by FDA. While a number of industry stakeholders still maintain that ephedra was safe when used as directed, O’Keeffe said that’s not what his team found.

“We talked to a number of people who had health problems who said they were using ephedra in accord with the label recommendations,” ​he said.

Steroid hangover

But even more damaging for the supplements industry has been the high profile steroid cases in Major League Baseball, O’Keeffe said. A number of these cases were linked to an organization called the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, otherwise known as BALCO, where a number of star baseball players obtained their ‘designer’ steroids. Patrick Arnold, a chemist associated with this organization, was also subsequently involved in the dietary supplement industry via his introduction of the stimulant ingredient DMAA in pre workout products. While dietary supplement experts will complain that these products are not properly supplements at all, the sad fact is that the public and apparently many lawmakers conflate the two, O’Keeffe said.

“When guys would show up in spring training with 40 pounds of new muscle it was kind of obvious that they weren’t putting on all that weight by just eating right and working out,”​ O’Keeffe said.  This was the era in which players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were vying to set a new home run record each year.

“And you even had cases of guys' head sizes growing. For a long time the league looked the other way. We had information from FBI wiretaps of phone calls in which stars’ names came up. Now finally MLB has a doping testing program that it claims to be the gold standard,” ​he said.

Self regulation conundrum

O’Keeffe said the ease with which bad actors whose names are linked to such scandals can set up shop in new guises is something that continues to besmirch the reputation of the industry.

“One thing that was discouraging about it for me was the lack of transparency. You had companies connected to these situations that would file for bankruptcy and then you’d find that the principals were back in business a month later,”​ O’Keeffe said.

O’Keeffe said what is needed for the reputation of the industry is to find some way to put teeth into the concept of self-regulation. That could mean striking a balance between some proof of legitimacy and unfettered market access, which is the side upon which the current regulatory structure seems to err. In his view it’s unfair to the industry that these kinds of companies and players can set the agenda.

“But really, what could the industry do under the current structure if one of these bad actors, maybe someone who already has a criminal record, wants to get into the business?”​ he said.

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