In May, ABC News aired a series of reports calling into question the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. The series, called "Daily Dose"—which greatly focused on children and supplements—had some industry members and consumers up in arms.
Before the reports aired, industry groups called for supplements users to phone or write ABC and volunteer their stories. The Dietary Supplement Education Alliance was one such group, and a post-show follow-up letter included a call to industry members to contact ABC and voice their displeasure. DSEA's letter stated that of those who had called ABC with positive supplements stories, "None was contacted, and we found it impossible to convince [ABC] to present a balanced view."
DSEA asked members to write ABC after the shows aired, noting key issues, including: "failure of the reports to include any information or positive experiences of supplement users; distortion and exaggeration of supplement risks; lack of acknowledgement of the many substantiated benefits of using dietary supplements; and assertion that supplements are not regulated."
Elliott Balbert, board member of DSEA and chief executive officer of Natrol Inc., said, "A major news network chose to present a story during sweeps that was sensationalized and inaccurate." And while DSEA's mission is to improve public health by communicating the "the good news story" about supplements, according to Balbert, "This particular occasion it was so blatant, so biased and it was so riddled with incorrect information that we sensed that there was real need for people to be able to express their views."
Dian Freeman, CCN, a nutritionist in Morristown, N.J., wrote to ABC in response to DSEA's call. "The point of my letter was that … tens of millions of people have seen dramatic results in their lives and health from supplements. You cannot with a straight face say to those people, 'Your supplements don't work,' " Freeman said. "But they [made a] blanket statement, 'ineffective' and used words like quackery. It defies reason."
Neil Levin, CCN, nutrition education manager for Bloomingdale, Ill.-based NOW Foods, also wrote to ABC. "Saying there's no evidence that vitamins are effective—that's just ridiculous. There's hundreds of thousands of research papers. Even the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has approved health claims on certain supplements," he said. "The National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements has white papers on specific supplements talking about some of their uses and their science. And to say there's no evidence, it's unreal that they would even say that."
Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., editor in chief of online information clearinghouse SupplementWatch.com, said a producer contacted him prior to "Daily Dose" airing. "We talked about how at SupplementWatch we've counseled lots of parents about what supplements are appropriate or not for their kids," he said. "I gave her the names of some of the parents that we've helped and said, 'Call them.'"
Talbott said the producer kept asking for "some horror stories, about some side effects or some of these dangerous supplements." When Talbott pressed for specifics about which dangerous supplements ABC was interested in, the producer said there weren't any she knew of, "but there must be something."
Talbott's interview was not included in ABC's series.
Responding to the show, Balbert said letting consumers know what happened and helping them to express their opinions is important. "Retailers need to be leaders. Categorically, I agree the retailers need to be proactive."
At the store level, Talbott said, education continues to be key. "That's what I'd like to see more, to be able to say in a more balanced way, 'Here you are, dear customer. This is what we know overall and this is what we can recommend to you.'"
On a grander scale, Levin noted some specific examples of good organizational communication. "I know the American Botanic Council and the American Herbal Products Association are some of the premier organizations in this industry for being consulted when a story is being produced, and having a quick, strong response to any stories, and are probably a good model for the rest of us to try to follow."
In the short-term, Balbert said there was one benefit to the ABC series. "Here we are at [one of our annual] fundraisers with leading companies coming to the dinner … while the ABC programs were airing," he said. "They were just absolutely livid with what ABC had done. So, ironically, one of the fringe benefits is that it was one of the largest fundraising events we ever had."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 11, 14