Innovative new tests which can identify the illegal use of steroids in the European beef industry have been devised by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast.
The tests are cheaper, more accurate and more convenient in tracing the illegal drugs than conventional doping tests.
The study was led by Professor Chris Elliot, the Director of the Institute of Agri-Food and Land Use at Queen’s, and is published today (Monday) in the scientific journal Analytical Chemistry.
Professor Elliott and his team believe that despite a long-standing ban by the European Union on the use of growth-promoting agents in cattle, widespread abuse of steroids is still continuing and remains difficult to detect.
Scientists working in this field suspect that up to 10 per cent of European cattle are illegally treated with growth-enhancing chemicals, including anabolic steroids.
Fears about their safety have been raised through scientific studies which have shown a potential link between some steroids used in growth promotion and cancer.
As the European Union continues to tighten its regulations, those carrying out the doping have found ways of hiding their practices from regulators, so it is important to find methods to catch those who flout the laws.
The new testing method measures steroids indirectly based on chemical changes associated with growth and muscle development in steroid-fed cattle.
Using a commercial blood analyser commonly found in hospitals, the researchers measured 20 different chemical markers, including proteins and cholesterol, in cattle treated with and without the commonly used steroids testosterone and oestrogen over a 42-day study period.
The new test detected the presence of the steroids with a high accuracy rate - between 91 and 96 per cent.
Professor Elliot said: “In recent years, a trend of administration of very low dose cocktails of naturally occurring hormones has made conventional forms of analysis even more problematic.
“Even if minute traces of steroids can be detected, proving definitive illegal administration under these circumstances is close to impossible.
“The ability to detect evidence of such administrations using metabolic markers would be a major scientific advance.
“The cost per analysis in our tests is much lower, allowing a greater number of samples to be processed and those found to be suspect can be subjected to a high degree of scrutiny.”
The researchers also say the study could lead to on-site steroid testing with portable instruments.
Professor Elliot says that administrating a single steroid probably meant that a lower metabolic response was generated compared with what was achieved through cocktail hormone treatments that are being abused in Europe.
“It will be important to build a library of metabolic data from animals treated with a range of anabolic agents to get a more complete panel against which to test suspected cattle. This effort should be carried out on a pan-European level,” he added.
The research was funded by the European Commission and safefood organisation in Ireland.
Cite This Page: