Poppy-seed contamination led to horse’s positive drug test, FEI Tribunal told

Opium poppy fields near Metheringham, in Lincolnshire, England. Photo: Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Opium poppy fields near Metheringham, in Lincolnshire, England. Photo: Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

An Italian-registered horse competing in Morocco probably failed a drug test because of poppy-seed contamination in its feed, the FEI Tribunal was told.

The combination of three substances found in the urine of the showjumper named Granada was highly suggestive of poppy-seed contamination, the tribunal heard.

The Italian-registered rider, 18-year-old Allegra Ieraci, received a reprimand from the tribunal over the test result.

Erik Elstad, sitting as a one-member tribunal panel, ruled that the degree of fault in the case was minimal. Ieraci received no fine or suspension.

However, Elstad rejected the assertion that he should find no fault or negligence in the case at all, saying that, on the evidence, Ieraci could have suspected that hay contamination might occur, especially in the autumn months.

Granada was selected for drug testing while competing in the CSI3*-W jumping event in El Jadida, Morocco, in mid-October last year.

The horse’s urine tested positive for oripavine, morphine and codeine. Oripavine is an opiate painkiller and is classified as a banned substance under the FEI Equine Prohibited Substances List. Morphine and codeine are also opiate painkillers, but are classed as controlled medication substances under the rules.

The tribunal was told that Granada was normally stabled in Basiano, Italy. From September 21 to October 19 last year Granada and Ieraci competed in several competitions in Morocco.

It was not possible to stock and transport Italian horse feed for the entire trip. Haylage taken from Italy was used initially. Once it ran out, domestic Moroccan hay provided by the organizers of the various competitions was bought for the horse.

The horse’s veterinarian, Dr Marco Rossi, declared that he did not provide the horse with any medications or substances that would violate FEI rules.

Oripavine was never used in veterinary medicine due to its low clinical effectiveness and high toxicity. Indeed, no medication containing oripavine was on the Italian market.

The simultaneous presence of the three substances in a urine sample suggested environmental or food contamination, with the result most probably arising from the ingestion of poppy seeds. Indeed, several such cases had been reported.

The tribunal was told that it had not been possible to get samples of the Moroccan-sourced feed for testing.

In later submissions, Ieraci provided several statements and reports that strengthened her argument that the failed drug test resulted from contaminated feed. It included a statement from an Italian food and hay producer that supplied Granada’s home stable confirming that its feed could occasionally be contaminated by poppy seeds. A test result from January furnished to the tribunal showed that such contamination had, indeed, occurred.

The tribunal was told that the problem of poppy-seed contamination had been reported in parts of Italy as well as other regions of Europe and northern Africa where the plant Papaver Somniferum could be found.

The horse’s positive test could have resulted from haylage initially taken from Italy, or from the stocks of hay purchased in Morocco, the tribunal was told.

Evidence was given that strict procedures were followed in the stables, and that the health of the horses was closely controlled. All medications, feed and supplements used were registered under the appropriate Italian laws.

Ieraci submitted via her counsel that she had not known that the hay contained prohibited substances, and that the same hay had been used for at least one year, and was fed to all 35 or so horses in the stables. The stables bought in the hay for the horses, who belonged to different owners.

It was impossible to test hay all the time.

In Ieraci’s view, No Fault or Negligence, or at least No Significant Fault or Negligence, applied in the case at hand. She sought the minimum sanction possible.

The FEI said it accepted that feed contamination as described was the likely source of the contamination, and it was of the opinion that No Significant Fault or Negligence applied in the case at hand.

Elstad, in his ruling, said he took note of Ieraci’s explanation, and found it was more likely than not that contaminated feed was behind the positive test result.

Elstad said it was Ieraci’s personal duty to ensure that no banned substance was present in the horse at any time.

“The person responsible [Ieraci] has to establish that she did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected even with the exercise of utmost caution, that she had administered to the horse, or the horse’s system otherwise contained, controlled medication substances.

“In the case at hand, the tribunal finds that the person responsible, even if she did not know that the hay was contaminated – as she is claiming – could have reasonably suspected that this was a possibility.”

Ieraci was aware of the equine anti-doping rules and was generally also informed that poppy-seed contamination of the hay could occur, especially during the poppy-seed season in autumn.

“Therefore, in the view of the tribunal, the person responsible could have suspected that hay contamination could occur.”

Elstad noted that Ieraci’s family and the stables where the horse was kept had since put in place stricter procedures, and had asked the feed company and potentially other feed providers to conduct testing on hay samples, especially during the poppy seed season in autumn, in order to avoid contamination in the future.

The no fault or negligence defence was not applicable in the case at hand, he ruled, although he acknowledged that the fault was minimal. Elstad, however, accepted that there was no significant fault or negligence in the case.

No suspension or fine was imposed. The rider was given a reprimand, and was ordered to contribute 1500 Swiss francs towards the cost of the judicial procedure.

The tribunal decision can be read here

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