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Busted! Tainted EU supplements exposed

By Lynda Searby , 01-Aug-2014

Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed system issued seven alerts for dietary supplement products in the last week of July alone.
Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed system issued seven alerts for dietary supplement products in the last week of July alone.

Androgenic anabolic steroids, vinpocetine and sidenafil were among the illegal substances uncovered in supplements being imported into the EU or already on the European market, according to data from the RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed).

The RASFF, a cross-border system for reporting food fraud and safety issues within the EU, issued seven alerts for dietary supplement products in the last week of July alone.

Czech authorities kept busy

On 31 July, the medicinal product progesterone, which is used in hormone replacement therapy, was detected at levels of 1.76 g/kg in a food supplement from the Czech Republic. The product, which had been distributed to nine other European countries, has now been withdrawn from the market.

The unauthorised ingredient androgenic anabolic steroid is a synthetic derivative of the male hormone testosterone that is used to increase strength and bodyweight. On 30 July in the Czech Republic, there were two instances of supplements imported from Bulgaria being withdrawn from the market after testing positive for the steroid. In one of the cases, the steroid was present at a level of 0.103 mg/kg.

Just two days earlier, Czech border control detained a consignment of food supplements from China after they were found to contain two unauthorised substances for treating erectile dysfunction. Sildenafil thiono analogue was detected at levels of 2.26 mg/item and tadalafil was detected at levels of 0.21 mg/item.

Two foods for particular nutritional use originating from the US were withdrawn from the Polish market due to the presence of several unauthorised substances. One contained vinpocetine, boron citrate, zinc picolinate and selenomethionine whilst the other contained vinpocetine, citrulline malate and L-carnitine fumarate.

High heavy metal levels

Member states were also alerted to two supplements with dangerously high levels of the heavy metal lead. In Germany, a Moringa oleifera food supplement was recalled after being found to contain 92.8 mg/kg of lead, then on 30 July a notification was issued after a high content of lead (10.3 mg/kg) was detected in a food supplement from the Netherlands that had been distributed to Belgium and Sweden.

In 2013, there were 156 RASFF notifications for diet foods and supplements, which represented a decrease of 15% on the previous year. The main unauthorised substances that were found in supplements were DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine), phenolphthalein, sidenfil and analogues, synephrine, yohimbine and sibutramine. 

Internet distribution makes detection difficult

According to the 2013 RASFF annual report: “These substances are found in food supplements because they have a certain metabolic or medicinal effect. It is not uncommon that they are not mentioned on the label and that the consumer is instead led to believe that the effect is caused by ‘natural plant extracts’ or something similar.”

The report also notes that “the distribution model of these products is very diverse and volatile, making it difficult for food control authorities to carry out effective enforcement”. 

The majority of RASFF notifications were triggered by border control inspections. Where notifications pertain to products already on sale in Europe, the notification usually comes about as a result of a consumer complaint or tests carried out internally by companies.

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