An autopsy of to-be-married father Chris Wilcock of Leeds, Yorkshire, revealed lethal caffeine levels equivalent to 300 cups of coffee in his system.
His tragic death led to a local MP calling for tighter regulation of food supplements, but the industry says regulation is not the issue, rather enforcement.
“Food in the UK and other EU markets is very strictly regulated, particularly food supplements,” said Sam Jennings, technical adviser at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN-UK).
“The biggest issue of concern is the lack of enforcement of the extensive and comprehensive laws that are in place.”
He added: “The laws are all in place and responsible companies follow those laws. It is the companies who import without doing their research, or companies who deliberately contravene the law, that are of concern.”
CRN-UK questioned the legality of the ‘T5’ products linked to the death, although the specific manufacturer has not been named yet.
There are multiple manufacturers of T5 fat-burning products, some of them in the UK, some in the US, China and elsewhere. Most of the sales occur online.
“We would have doubts over their legality in the EU, particularly in the UK, for reasons relating to their composition, their labelling and their claims,” said Jennings.
He noted many T5 products did not even follow the basic EU Food Supplements Directive stipulations to label products as ‘food supplements’ or dietary supplements’.
“If the products are not being sold as supplements, then the question has to be asked, what are they? Under what food category do they fall?”
Rob Verkerk, executive and scientific director at the Alliance for Natural Health International (ANH-I), agreed there may be problems with the T5 products in question.
"Based on the reports, it sounds like the T5 tablets Mr Wilcox was taking were likely to have been adulterated as the typical caffeine level is a daily dose of most T5 products would represent around 2 cups, not 30 cups, of caffeine,” said Dr Verkerk.
But he defended the regulation in place and agreed with Jennings that the issue was one of enforcement.
“There is actually ample legislation to ensure food supplements are safe, including EU general food, food labelling, hygiene and claims legislation. The problems that arise with safety tend to be with online rather than retail sales.”
“Here the difficulty is more to do with enforcement than it is with the paucity of any legislation. It is notoriously difficult to monitor and regulate online sales, and, because of that, the main take home has to be that consumers only purchase products from reputable suppliers.”
Modes of consumption
Sam Conebar, research and development manager at UK supplement distributor Forza Industries said products varied in quality and noted the product in question did not even have intake guidance. However he said no legislation could account for consumption of the kind engaged in by Wilcock.
“When this much caffeine is taken at any one time, the effects will nearly always be fatal. It is one thing taking a T5 supplement in order to lose weight; it is another thing completely to take this many capsules all in one go,” Conebar said.
“It must be remembered that in this instance Mr Wilcock reportedly died from an overdose of caffeine, a legal food ingredient, rather than a harmful substance or drug.”
He added: “Of course, it may have been that the product contained more caffeine than was stated on the label or that it did not contain the correct directions and/or safety warnings.”
“It seems that the answer to this problem would be more education for customers and more warnings on product packaging.”
Forza Industries distributes t5 products, all of which pass through its QC procedures, he said.