Would-be pro player relates tale of steroid woes
WASHINGTON—Jareem Gunter, a college baseball player with dreams of playing professionally, thought he had found a "diamond in the rough," a safe and legal dietary supplement that would make him healthier.
Instead, he told Congress on Tuesday, "It gave me liver failure." Gunter said the experience with Superdrol four years ago, when he was a student at Lincoln University in Missouri, left him hospitalized for weeks. He said that although he's OK now, his doctor told him the condition could come back at any time.
Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told the same hearing of the Senate Judiciary crime and drugs subcommittee that Superdrol is a brand name for an anabolic steroid and that Gunter's experience illustrates the problem with steroids making their way into dietary supplements.
"He woke up in a hospital bed with the doctor explaining to him that he had suffered acute liver failure, a textbook effect of taking steroids orally," Tygart said in prepared testimony.
Tygart said more regulation of the multibillion-dollar dietary supplement industry is needed, and the subcommittee chairman, Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter, said that was worth exploring.
"The question arises whether there needs to be a change in federal law," Specter said, specifically raising the possibility of dietary supplements getting clearance from the government before they are sold. "The whole area is really pretty much off the radar screen," he told reporters later.
But the industry and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sponsored the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, said more regulation wasn't the solution. They said it's up to federal authorities to enforce the law.
"A key principle of the ('94) law is that supplements were not subject to pre-market approval, since the cost and time alone required to see a product through FDA approval would sound the death knell for this industry," Hatch said. As for products that contain steroids, he said, "Simply put, under current law, these products are not allowed to be marketed."
Michael Levy, director of the FDA's division of new drugs and labeling compliance, told the panel his agency has a limited ability to keep dietary supplements with steroids from being marketed.
"FDA generally cannot identify violative products before they enter the marketplace," Levy said. "After products enter the market, we must undertake a painstaking investigative and analytical process" to show the products violate the law.
Daniel Fabricant, interim executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association, which represents retailers, manufacturers, suppliers and distributors of health foods and dietary supplements, said, "The barriers to enforcement are simple: money, manpower and will."
Specter, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, said his interest was piqued in part by the case of Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero, who was suspended for 50 games this season after testing positive for androstenedione, a substance that slugger Mark McGwire used in the 1990s that was later banned by baseball.
Romero sued the manufacturer of an over-the-counter supplement earlier this year, arguing that it should bear the blame for his suspension because the manufacturer misrepresented its products and ingredients.
The Major League Baseball Players Association is pressing Congress to establish stricter reporting requirements for supplement manufacturers and tougher penalties for repeat offenders. The union also is lobbying Congress to require that supplements be analyzed by a federally certified lab that would determine the ingredients to be listed on the label.
"Players, like everyone else, have no idea what they're taking," union head Don Fehr said in an interview. "I'm sure there are some good supplement products in the market that are safe, effective and accurately identified. I hope these products can be protected. But as of now, there is no way a player or anyone else can know with certainty that what they are taking is accurately described on the label."