Editorial: Less Than "Sensational" News

By Len Monheit

Well, they’ve gone and done it again. Yes, Consumerlab.com, in it s typical fashion, has gone and kicked the industry in its vulnerable places at another inopportune time. Warding off the controversy generated by CBS coverage of Dan Hurley’s book, ‘Natural Causes’, industry was forced to defend itself yet again this past week after the NBC Today Show reported Consumerlab.com findings stating that only 10 of 21 multivitamin products met ingredient claims on their labels or were not ‘contaminated’. As in previous instances, it is not only the findings, but the manner in which they are presented and the context in which the results are used, that raises the ire of the very industry the organization relies heavily upon to finance a good part of its operations.

According to a member notice issued by the Natural Products Association, “A guest on the program from the testing company, ConsumerLab, implied that this (finding) is not uncommon and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have “strict” regulations for dietary supplements ”, a point obviously challenged by David Seckman, the Natural Products Association’s executive director and CEO.

The implications of the consumerlab.com allegation regarding inadequate regulation fall on welcome, if misguided, ears in media and on Capitol Hill. Nowhere in the dialogue is enforcement of existing regulations discussed, and where products fail testing and are therefore illegal under current regulations, one would think that this information would be presented to sensationalism-hungry journalists, if only to give them some real and objective context. Such is not the game though, in an environment, where what you do not present is as important as what you do.

Likely also lost in the sensationalism, are the results of industry testing and certification programs which show that many products do, in fact, meet all appropriate criteria and quality standards. Interestingly enough, nine products tested in Consumerlab.com’s voluntary (paid for) testing program passed, seeming to indicate that contrary to the view presented on television, most products do pass and are of sufficiently high quality. (This would change the claim of a 52% failure to about a 37% failure rate, obviously not quite so sensational.) As in the past, lead levels, an issue under California law, also get included in the data as a criteria for failure, lumped in with the rest of the failing products.

In an environment with complex formulae and matrices, with some discussions and yes, disagreement over appropriate, validated finished product testing methods, it would be helpful for the information typically released by Consumerlab.com to contain, if not the actual lab conducting the tests (the tests are sub-contracted), at least the details of the methodology as a footnote, especially where a complex matrix is involved. Editor's note: methodology is described on a non-subsciption page, in this case: http://www.consumerlab.com/results/multivitside.asp, specifically vitamin and mineral index elements using the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) 24 methods for Oil- and Water-soluble Vitamins and Mineral Tablets.)

On a certain level in this age of commercial opportunity, as I’ve expressed before, we have only ourselves as an industry to blame for creating the business environment where an organization like Consumerlab.com could succeed. We know there are problems in the marketplace and ‘underages’ (to preserve cost) have been talked about for years – behind closed doors. We also know that sensationalism sells and our critics and opponents (and yes, I have to classify Consumerlab.com pretty much as an opponent) will take selective examples and evidence and turn these to any advantage they can. It is unfortunate that issues such as these undo much of the ‘other’ work being financed by industry and get much more pick up in the media. It seems all too frequently we take one step forward, and two back, as we talk about the benefits to those that matter, only to see much of this undone with one sensationalized press release and public appearance.

Frankly, I’d like to see some of the costs of both efforts directed into research, testing methods and actions against those that willfully, and/or repeatedly, ignore existing regulations governing the dietary supplements industry.

It is certainly unfortunate that Consumerlab.com, in its disclosure(s), did not mention which of the deficiencies that it found were actually against current regulations, in an effort to educate its audience about the real quality issues (and state of regulations). It would not have detracted significantly from the sensationalism, it would not have compromised the Consumerlab.com position and program, but it would have helped provide at least a bit of education and context that could be used by industry’s ‘good guys’ in building a better industry.

I’m not saying there are not problem products out there, in all categories. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve created such a commercial opportunity for Consumerlab.com – at our own (and the industry’s) expense.

Letter to the Editor:

The following was received by Consumerlab.com President, Tod Cooperman, MD:

Hi Len,

I read your editorial today about ConsumerLab.com’s recent release of results regarding multivitamins. I was very surprised by the number of statements that that are clearly incorrect. I have listed several:

  • You write “it would be helpful for the information typically released by ConsumerLab.com to contain…at least the details of the methodology as a footnote…” Len, these details are referenced more than once in the report. You can find them at http://www.consumerlab.com/results/multivitside.asp -- no subscription required. This is true for every review that we have published. Interestingly, those details are not freely available from other testing programs.
  • You also write “Interestingly enough, all nine products tested in ConsumerLab.com’s voluntary (paid for) testing program passed…” and you go on to calculate a lower failure rate. However, no where do we say all voluntarily tested products passed certification testing -- just as I expect that not all products pass testing in other certification programs.
  • Further, you write, “It is certainly unfortunate that ConsumerLab.com, in its disclosure(s), did not mention which of the deficiencies that it found were against current regulations…” Not so, Len. First, FDA regulations require products to contain no less than 100% of their ingredients -- a standard that we also use, permitting a margin of experimental error. Unfortunately, one product had none of its vitamin A and several others came up short by 15% to 46%. Second, our report clearly indicates the lead limit established by the State of California (which was surpassed many times over by the amount of lead found in a woman’s daily multivitamin). Why do we look to the State of California? Because the FDA has not published a lead limit for supplements despite the dangers of lead. Our report also clearly references the USP requirement that a standard tablet or caplet disintegrate within 30 minutes (which, unfortunately, was not the case for a seniors’ multi and a general adult multi).

When ConsumerLab.com’s test results are positive, the industry has welcomed and promoted them, such as our finding of no mercury in fish oil supplements. When our results are negative, as they were last week, you call us an opponent. We do not care to be either friend or foe – just a reliable source of information. I hope that you feel that same way about the reliability of information presented on NPICenter.


Tod Cooperman, MD

(Editor's Note:We requested that Consumerlab.com (January 23rd) allow us to present a real pass rate by having them provide the number of voluntary products which were not approved. As of January 26th, NPIcenter has not received this information.

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