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Spiked supplements: What will it take to stem the tide?

Spiked supplements: What will it take to stem the tide?

Americans want a quick fix to their weight management woes, and company after company is willing to give them that “silver bullet”—even if it means manufacturing, marketing and selling an adulterated product.

If you don't believe me, just look at the latest round of 20 weight loss products called out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 18 for containing undeclared, unapproved substances. Slender Slim 11. Advanced Slim 5. Botanical Slimming. The list goes on and on.

In 20 separate public notifications, the agency said that the products in question contain sibutramine, a controlled substance that was removed from the market in October 2010 for safety reasons. Two of the products were also found to contain phenolphthalein, which the FDA says is “a solution used in chemical experiments and a suspected cancer-causing agent that is not approved for marketing in the United States.”

According to the FDA, the products are labeled as dietary supplements or herbal teas. All can be found for sale on various websites and even in some retail stores. The public notifications are listed on the agency’s website under the heading “Tainted Weight Loss Products.”

Over the last year, the FDA has been more active in singling out products that are found to be adulterated—particularly in three product categories: weight management, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding. In fact, as Daniel Fabricant, director of the FDA’s division of dietary supplements, told The New York Times in August, the growing availability of adulterated supplements “is the biggest issue [the supplement industry] faces.”

Recently, we've seen much more than just tough words from the U.S. government on this issue. Just last month, a federal grand jury indicted Kelly Dean Harvey, a former top executive at supplement manufacturer NovaCare, for selling sexual enhancement supplements spiked with a drug analogue of the erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil. The FDA first issued a warning about this product in November 2009.

As part of its efforts to identify adulterated supplements on the market, the FDA last year created an RSS Feed to more rapidly notify consumers of known tainted supplements, as well as a mechanism for industry and others to anonymously alert FDA about potentially tainted products.

Despite all of these efforts, however, spiking continues to plague the supplement industry—as is evident by this latest round of 20 weight loss products singled out by the FDA.

So what’s the answer to finally stemming the tide on this problem?

Should the FDA focus more on seizing spiked products instead of issuing warning letters and hoping companies will respond, as Council for Responsible Nutrition President and CEO Steve Mister told The New York Times in August?

Does the “legitimate” supplement industry need to sound the alarm much louder on this issue, even if it means potentially causing consumers to eschew weight loss, sexual enhancement and other supplements in “risky” categories all together?

Do supplement marketers and manufacturers need to step up their testing and supply procurement measures to avoid any chance of an adulterated ingredient slipping into their products, particularly if the products falls into the "risky" categories of weight management, bodybuilding and sexual enhancement?

Should retailers be more aggressive in ensuring that no potentially adulterated products ever reach their store shelves—even if the result is lost sales in popular categories such as weight management and bodybuilding?

Personally, I believe the answer to each of these last four questions is a resounding YES! After all, we have a $28 billion market to protect—not to mention consumer access to a wide range of legitimate and safe products that can actually help move the needle on health and wellness.

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