CELAYA, Mexico — Positive drug tests for five standout members of Mexico's national soccer team have forced Mexican officials to acknowledge a problem that goes far beyond sports: Much of Mexico's beef is so tainted with the steroid clenbuterol that it sickens hundreds of people each year.
Use of the steroid is illegal. But it's found a niche among ranchers, who marvel at the way it helps cattle build muscle mass before going to the slaughterhouse. The beef is pink and largely free of layers of fat, winning over unwitting consumers.
Ranchers call the powdery substance "miracle salts." A few call it "cattle cocaine."
Whatever name is used, the substance has unpleasant side effects for human beings. Last year, 297 people felt sick enough after eating tainted meat to visit hospital emergency rooms. Many more just endured the symptoms.
"It happened to me," said Raul Martinez, a third-generation butcher in this dairy and cattle region of central Mexico. "When I fell ill, my heart started to race, and I got the shakes."
The use of clenbuterol and the subject of steroid-tainted meat surged into headlines in Mexico last week when Mexico's Soccer Federation announced the positive tests for the five players.
Team leaders asserted the result was due to eating tainted meat, and many agreed, including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who, with the pillars of the national sport wobbling, acknowledged that contamination is a problem in the meat industry.
"I believe it's a matter of tainted food," Calderon said during a visit to California over the weekend. "Indeed, many (ranchers) put who-knows-what kind of substances so that their cattle weigh a few kilos more."
The players, including goalie Guillermo Ochoa, won't know their fate, which could include a two-year suspension, until a second round of tests later this week.
At the feedlots around this city in Guanajuato state, the mention of clenbuterol draws knowing nods from salesclerks even as they decline to talk. But news reports show that cases of clenbuterol abuse in cattle have occurred in the states of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Michoacan, Mexico, Tlaxcala and Durango.
Worried perhaps about the fallout on the tourism industry, which employs one out of eight Mexican workers, the Health and Agriculture ministries rushed out a joint statement headlined "Consumption of Meat in Mexico is safe."
Sickness from eating clenbuterol-tainted meat used to be far worse, the statement said, noting that 795 people were hospitalized in 2007. Last year's rate of illness was less than 1 per million, it added.
Despite the decline, the problem remains chronic.
"You should have zero people getting sick if it (Mexican beef) is safe," said Dr. Don H. Catlin, a professor emeritus of medical pharmacology at UCLA and a pioneer in drug testing in sports. "If you have one person, then that means it's getting into the system."
Mexico has some 7 million beef cattle, 3 million dairy cows and 6.8 million calves. In its arid north, ranchers last year exported some 1.2 million calves to U.S. feedlots. But where clenbuterol use appears persistent is in the central part of Mexico, a temperate mountainous region that supplies a domestic market so hungry for beef that Mexico is the No. 1 U.S. market for beef exports.
The risk then is largely to Mexican consumers, and anyone who visits the country and consumes steady amounts of beef. In April, Germany's anti-doping agency warned traveling athletes not to eat meat in Mexico because it might result in positive doping results.
The economic incentive for ranchers to use illegal steroids is great.
"A steer normally yields 55 percent meat. But a steer fed clenbuterol yields 62 to 65 percent," said Martinez, who operates the Martin Butcher at a central Celaya market. He pulled out a calculator and showed how using the steroid for a month or two before slaughter can bring in an additional 100 pounds or more of beef for each steer.
The problem, he added, is that "a few ranchers overdo it with the dosage."
"The use of this substance to fatten cattle is common," financial journalist Enrique Campos Suarez wrote in the newspaper El Economista, adding that it got the moniker "cattle cocaine" because of the "enormous profits that are said to be earned in the industry by those who sell it."
Since 2007, Mexican law penalizes ranchers who use banned steroids in cattle with potential jail terms of seven years. But the law is widely disregarded.
Just five weeks ago in Aguascalientes, authorities confiscated a ton of beef liver after five people were hospitalized there. Two weeks ago, officials took control of 850 head of cattle in Jalisco state after finding feed spiked with clenbuterol at the La Estrella ranch.
Martinez, who heads an association of 170 butchers in Celaya, said meat vendors occasionally had discussed not selling steroid-tainted beef. But there are always holdouts, and bribes reach into the local health departments, which look the other way.
"I agree that you should get rid of clenbuterol. But it has to be everyone, not just a few," Martinez said.
Even as the office of Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova denied there was a problem with Mexican beef, the secretary acknowledged that butchers and consumers had grown accustomed to the less fatty look of meat raised on clenbuterol.
"Because it has a better appearance, some butchers prefer this meat and don't realize they are committing a crime," Cordova said, according to the semiofficial news agency Notimex.
Those sickened by tainted meat are usually those who buy organ meat, mainly liver, at markets and cook it at home, said Joel Manrique Moreno, the director of sanitary risk protection for Guanajuato state.
"An hour later, they have the symptoms," he said, which can include "headache, palpitations, nervousness and fluctuating blood pressure rates."
Manrique said poisoning these days was "exceedingly rare," an assertion refuted by a veterinarian and former federal legislator, Ernesto Davila Aranda.
"This state is swimming in clenbuterol. They are poisoning people, and the authorities aren't doing anything about it," Davila told the Guanajuato a.m. newspaper last month. MORE FROM MCCLATCHY Mexican drug gangs building own tanks as war intensifies U.S. jewelry designer remakes herself in Mexican exile In Mexico's Oaxaca, new political order rolls up sleeves Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked