Currently there is a dangerous precedent of vague warnings put out by national food safety agencies. This keeps consumers in the dark and drags the supplement industry’s reputation through the mud.
If something is potentially dangerous, authorities must sit up, be brave and share with us everything they know. If there are casualties of implicated innocent parties along the way then so be it – better that than actual casualties.
The main communication tool in the EU is its Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) – introduced in 1979 as a cross-border, round-the-clock service to share information on risks to public health in the food chain.
What can you find out from it if you’re not an EU authority? Not much, really. What the offending ingredient was, which country it came from and which flagged it up as well as a few words on why it was blocked.
RASFF-notification border controls for food supplements, fortified foods and medical foods are rising. They increased from 116 in 2010 to 185 in 2012, 160 in 2013 and 208 in 2014 for contamination, labelling, nutrient levels and other issues, but mostly over contamination with “unauthorised ingredients”.
Beyond this it’s up to national authorities to decide if more information on the product itself is circulated – and here the level of transparency varies greatly from country to country.
A couple of cases in point. After seeing a RASFF alert from Germany, I tried to find out which company was still selling aegeline – an ingredient linked to cases of liver damage through its use in USP Labs' product OxyElite.
The German authority got back to me with quotes from the EU laws books: “According to Article 52 of the General Food Law (EC) Nr. 178/2002 the information in the RASFF is confidential. Therefore no further information can be disclosed.”
RASFF is an internal network designed to exchange information between national authorities, they told me.
On another occasion I sought information on a 2012 warning from the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on 84 “potentially dangerous sports supplements” that contained “dangerous ingredients such as steroids, stimulants and hormones”.
The campaign followed the hospitalisation of two men with severe jaundice and liver damage, which was linked to a steroid-spiked product called Celtic Dragon.
Did the MHRA list all 84 products by name to avoid further unfortunate incidents? Nope. When contacted this year the MHRA told me it couldn’t disclose the names of products or companies subject to this investigation.
Not only does this render such press releases near useless in terms of consumer safety – aside from perhaps putting people off buying supplements online – it is also damaging for the supplement industry as a whole, which of course is made up of 99.9% companies who would never dream of slipping dangerous substances into their products.
Consumer and trade groups should (for once) be in agreement: the EU needs a more transparent policy when it comes to supplement scares, for everyone’s sake.
No shame in naming
Not everyone is taking this route though. For the Nordic states, if a supplement presents a risk to public health it is ‘named and shamed’ by the relevant authority.
In the last year alone Norway has named products containing polluted fish oil, Denmark cited products containing 16 times the safe limit for vitamin A and D and Sweden named nine ‘sexual potency’ supplements with unlisted pharmaceuticals, to name just a few examples.
This is the way it should be done. What’s the point in testing products if the full results of those tests are not released?
Some might argue resource-strapped authorities should be left to do their work in peace, and if the websites and companies are closed down then job done.
But we know this is not how the illicit supplements market works. Authorities struggle to track down the manufacturers, which normally have dodgy PO Box addresses or fall within jurisdiction grey zones between member states, and if websites are closed down they pop back up again in a matter of weeks, days or even hours.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it and its overseas partners had closed 47 websites since 2012 as part of its campaign against the toxic fat burner DNP.
Despite fatalities and an ensuing public campaign complete with Twitter hashtag and Youtube videos, the FSA has never released a name of a product containing DNP or a website that sold it.
Speaking at the inquest of a 21-year-old DNP victim, investigating officer Detective Sergeant Andy Chatting reportedly said: "One site has closed down, but the caveat is sites close down [but] pop up in almost identical format hours later."
Naming the products and retailers isn’t the ultimate solution, but it can help force such insidious products and their peddlers out into the open.
In July the Norwegian authority warned against Arnold Iron Dream Concentrated Night Time Recover for suspected DNP content – one of the only countries along with Latvia to do so out of a 33-country investigation.
It published images of the product and named the alleged manufacturer and importer.
Norway stuck its head above the trenches – and received threats of legal action as a result from the distributor and manufacturer which said the DNP product was counterfeit and their original was clean.
But I’m with Norway, when it comes to lethal ingredients like DNP in particular, authorities should be beyond such commercial qualms. This is a public health issue first and foremost.
If the DNP-containing Arnold product really was counterfeit, then the innocent manufacturer has my sympathies, but if that’s the price to pay for greater transparency when it comes to supplement scares then so be it. That firm would have the opportunity to explain the situation.
Give me commercial casualties over human casualties any day.