Supplement manufacturers and retailers were likely groaning in unison last week after Dr. Mehmet Oz focused on the issue of adulterated weight loss supplements during his popular daily television show. The Dr. Oz. segment featured five weight loss products—all of which were tested and found to contain undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients.
Oz was visibly upset by what he called “shocking” findings and the potential harm spiked products could pose to consumers. “These over-the-counter supplements are everywhere—in corner health food stores, big cities, small towns and online,” he said on the show.
So what do others think? We spoke to three long-time natural products retailers to get their reaction to the show and the broader issue of adulterated dietary supplements.
The Dr. Oz show portrayed the issue of supplement spiking as a growing problem and "America’s hidden health scandal." What are your thoughts on this? Is supplement spiking becoming more frequent?
Michael Kanter, co-owner and chief visionary officer of Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass.: I doubt it’s becoming more frequent. I think there’s value in us being aware of it, but I think the hype that comes out of Dr. Oz sometimes exceeds the reality. We need to be careful of becoming reactionary, when the goal of Dr Oz's program is to keep viewership high. When I watched the teaser for the show and saw it was about some weight loss products, it was clear it was about products we would never carry in our store. I'm guessing most ethical natural food retailers wouldn't carry those either.
Jon Fiume, vice president of retail operations and natural products at Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacies in Ohio: I don’t believe that supplement spiking is necessarily becoming more prevalent. It has always existed and will continue to exist. People look for a quick way to make a buck in our country, and many people in our country seek out quick fixes. I do believe, however, that more and more manufacturers practicing spiking will be exposed.
Are retailers responsible for ensuring supplement quality?
What does your store do to help ensure the quality and integrity of the supplements you carry and to prevent selling adulterated supplements?
Dean Nelson, founder of Dean’s Natural Food Market in New Jersey: We carry the highest quality brands only and gladly provide assays to any customers who need assurance as to the integrity of the brands we stand behind. We staff two nutritionists who understand the quality standards our customers expect.
We also have a 100 percent ‘no questions asked’ return policy. Although we do not guarantee the results of any products, we do stand behind them 100 percent.
MK: All of our companies [supplement manufacturers] have their products tested regularly. We get a certificate of analysis—all companies provide these COAs, which say what's in their products. In my 38 years of business, I've rarely had someone complain about a product. Sometimes a person will be allergic [to a product] or feel that a product doesn’t work. They may have a reaction to a powerful herbal medicine that isn't right for them, but I've not got a complaint about the danger of a product.
Still, because of the hype surrounding the Dr. Oz segment, we need to tell our companies that we need to see reassurance about their analysis so that we can know they aren't using any foreign, banned ingredients. I want to do that only so that we can be proactive and ready for the negative publicity if this issue somehow gets extended [beyond the Dr. Oz Show].
JF: We work closely with our manufacturers. This includes everything from assisting us in addressing customer concerns to providing us with information about their products. In addition, we are members of the Natural Products Association. The organization is made up of manufacturers and retailers and provides product integrity programs, such as the True Label program and GMP certification program.
Is supplement spiking of growing concern to you and your customers?
MK: I asked my manager yesterday if we're getting calls about supplements being spiked and she said, ‘Not a one.’
JF: Offering quality supplements has always been a concern in our stores. It is not unusual for us to turn down a product due to questions surrounding quality—whether from spiking or confidence in the label.
DN: We promote wellness, and shy away from any magic formulas that are touted as a cure or single solution for anything. We do not attract the consumer who is looking for a product of any type that would fit the description that we all are skeptical of. Consumer confidence is what builds support and loyalty.
Should retailers demand third-party testing?
Do you feel supplement retailers should do more to demand appropriate third-party testing from supplement manufacturers and distributors—at least for product categories that have been identified as being ripe for adulteration (weight management, bodybuilding and sexual enhancement)?
DN: Any good retailer, who believes in the values and purpose we represent, knows the quality manufacturers and should not have to demand third-party regulations.
JF: I absolutely believe that this would be beneficial. It is as though there is a separate supplement industry made up of questionable players producing poor quality and potentially harmful products. Without question, they need to clean up their act and play by the same rules as those manufacturers demonstrating integrity.
Along the same lines, there are retailers who whole-heartedly know that they are selling questionable products and are doing so simply to make a dime. They are not thinking that they could perhaps be placing their customer’s health in danger. The solution to this issue will need to be driven by customers demanding clean, high-quality products; by retailers demanding the same and showing a willingness to boot out the bad apples; and by manufacturers being committed to delivering on these demands.
MK: Yes. The reason why is because it's the right thing to do. It gives us reassurance that we know what we're doing. I've been in the natural foods business for so long and there was a fair amount of trust for many years; but given the current market, the current challenges and the increasing success of our industry, it behooves us both ethically and from a business perspective to know that what we're selling are honest and ethical products.
I can foresee us writing a letter to our supplement manufacturers asking for reassurance about this. In fact, your question is spurring me to write that letter today—it's a done deal. This is like the tip of the iceberg. What we're dealing with is foreign to the products that most of us [retailers] carry, but what we don't want is to have it get any closer to us. We want to eliminate that possibility.