Spanish police uncover clenbuterol ring doping horses, livestock

Spain’s Guardia Civil arrested 34 people connected to an alleged trafficking ring involving clenbuterol in the Canary islands

Spain’s Guardia Civil arrested 34 people connected to an alleged trafficking ring involving clenbuterol in the Canary Islands that could bolster the argument by Alberto Contador that his positive test during this year’s Tour de France came from eating contaminated meat.

Spasmbronchal seized by Spanish police. | Image by Guardia Civil
Spasmbronchal seized by Spanish police. | Image by Guardia Civil

As part of an investigation dating back to May, police discovered that Spasmbronchal, a form of clenbuterol, was being used illegally by two livestock ranches on Gran Canaria and another on Tenerife to increase animals’ body mass before slaughter and then sold for human consumption.

Contador has argued to growing skepticism that the source of the clenbuterol in his system came from dining on Spanish beef that was laden with the banned product. Contador faces a possible two-year ban and the disqualification from the 2010 Tour victory if he’s unable to convince anti-doping authorities of his argument.

Clenbuterol has been banned in the European Union for use in livestock for more than a decade, but the investigation in Spain’s Canary islands seems to indicate the product is still being used illicitly within some quarters of the beef industry.

Officials said among those arrested are 13 pharmacists and eight assistants, nine veterinarians, a rancher, one bodybuilder and one cyclist. They are being charged for allegedly illicitly prescribing and using Spasmbronchal, a form of clenbuterol.

The operation, dubbed “Viar” by Spanish police, began in May when authorities caught someone injecting clenbuterol into a horse before a race at Valleseco on Spain’s Gran Canaria during the fiesta of San Vicente Ferrer.

During that same race, a horse collapsed after bleeding from its nose and mouth and died just before reaching the finish line. An autopsy later determined the animal was injected with clenbuterol and the horse’s owner was later charged with cruelty to animals.

Police later discovered that the product was prescribed by a veterinarian, who was later linked to two cooperatives in the Canary islands to move the product. Police found large quantities of the drug that could be justified with necessary paperwork and prescriptions.

Those arrested face charges of crimes against public health and the falsification of documents. Authorities said more arrests could be forthcoming.

The drug is used illegally to help clear bronchial tubes in horses before races. Clenbuterol can also be taken as a product improve muscle-to-fat ratios in humans as well as to bolster leanness in meat in beef destined for slaughter.

Whether or not the latest revelations will help Contador remains to be seen. A urine sample submitted by Contador on the Tour’s second rest day showed minute traces of clenbuterol. He has since claimed that the drug could be traced to beef he consumed the night before. Later data also showed traces of a plasticizer used in medical tubing and blood bags, leading to speculation that the source may have been stored blood, suggesting that he had been involved in blood-doping. The plasticizer, DEHP, is commonly used in many products and there is a current debate revolving around what levels of DEHP could be attributed to common environmental exposure and what would signal use of banned medical equipment and procedures.

UCI president Pat McQuaid, speaking during this week’s presentation of the 2011 Tour de France in Paris on Tuesday, asked for patience in the ongoing Contador investigation as the World Anti-Doping Agency reviews the case.

“This is a very important case and we have to be completely sure … if and when the decision is taken,” McQuaid told reporters. “It’s quite complicated. WADA are doing work with scientists and specialists in this area and we’re waiting for the results to come back.”