In an unexpected move deviating from industry standards, the United States Anti-Doping Agency has backed the NSF Certified for Sport program as a way to lower the risk of athletes unknowingly taking contaminated supplements, the organization announced this week.
“Many athletes believe they need dietary supplements to perform at their best, but this trust in supplements is undeserved,” the announcement said. “Dietary supplements are regulated in a post-market fashion, which means that no regulatory body approves the accuracy of the label or the safety of the contents before they are sold to consumers. […] If athletes choose to use supplements despite these known risks, USADA has always recommended that athletes use only dietary supplements that have been certified by a third-party program that tests for substances prohibited in sport. USADA currently recognizes NSF Certified for Sport as the program best suited for athletes to reduce the risk from supplements.”
“Using an NSF Certified for Sport product significantly reduces, but does not necessarily eliminate, the chance of testing positive and being sanctioned,” the announcement added.
While USADA will not fully dismiss cases of positive tests related to substances regulated by the NSF program, USADA CEO Travis Tygart told ESPN that such a situation could merit a lesser sanction, like a public warning. That situation would be extremely rare, however, as NSF has proved highly effective in pro sports thus far.
“Hopefully, with this recommendation, athletes are only going to be using these lower-risk supplements,” Tygart said. “Major League Baseball has used NSF Certified for Sport as its exclusive third-party certifier over the last decade or so, and they have not had a single positive test come from those supplements.”
Additionally, Tygart said that USADA intends to push the World Anti-Doping Agency to raise the threshold limits to trigger a positive test for certain banned substances. Today’s testing methods are currently able to identify banned substances by one-trillionth of a gram per milliliter, according to ESPN.
“We’ve seen water contamination cases, meat contamination, supplement contamination,” Tygart said. “We’ve had half a dozen contaminated medication cases. This is a medication that does not contain a prohibited substance, coming from reputable pharmacies. The issue is laboratories’ ability to see 1,000-fold lower levels of these substances, which athletes are picking up through other areas that are not indicative of intentional cheating.”
Famously, in 2018, world champion swimmer Madisyn Cox was dealt a two-year suspension for a positive drug test that found 0.1 ng/ml of Trimetazidine in her urine, an amount that Cox was told compared to “a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.” She initially thought the substance’s presence came from drinking tainted tap water, but her suspension was later reduced when it was traced by the Salt Lake City WADA-accredited lab back to the Cooper Complete Elite Athletic multivitamin that Cox, 23, said she had been taking for seven years, and that she had listed on doping control forms.
The supplement was not NSF certified but was said to be batch tested. Cox, who had to sit out the 2018 summer season and thus the opportunity to qualify for major international meets this year, is in the midst of a lawsuit against an affiliate of the Dallas-based Cooper Clinic.
Update: The USADA has clarified that it “recommends” the NSF Certified for Sport program, but does not use the word “endorse,” as certified supplements are considered low risk, but not zero risk, and athletes should still determine whether they want to take the risk of using dietary supplements. We’ve asked them for clarification on what they believe the difference between “recommending” and “endorsing” is.