But regulators say this is impossible in an age of austerity-driven public service cutbacks and a need to prioritise cases where public health is at risk.
An exchange of emails seen by NutraIngredients between a frustrated industry figure who has been alerting the UK Medicinal and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to online retailers selling products with banned or non-approved ingredients, highlights the issue.
After signifying a plethora of products containing barred compounds like GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), AMP Citrate (4-amino-2-methylpentane citrate) and DMBA (1,3 dimethylbutylamine), the industry figure is told by the MHRA that policing is a function of resourcing.
“The Borderline Section is responsible for the whole UK. This means many tens of thousands of companies and an inestimable number of products,” the MHRA spokesperson writes.
“Up to 2013, the section had six classifiers and one assistance classifier and carried a backload of cases. Since then, three of our staff have retired and not been replaced due to public service savings.”
“As a consequence, we now have only four classifiers and have had to allocate separate areas of work.”
In the case of sports supplements, the MHRA spokesperson said in the email exchange that in many cases, it was the FSA and local Trading Standards agencies that were the relevant bodies.
The spokesperson added: “We know there are lots of unlawful products out there but this is rather like policing speed limits. It is impossible to catch and stop everyone who exceeds the speed limit and many will go unnoticed.”
“An un-level playing ground is caused by the players, not by the referee.”
An FSA spokesperson said Trading Standards officers are the appropriate persons to investigate products containing ingredients that may be banned, medicinal or do not hold a European Union novel foods authorisation.
“The officer should carry out an investigation which leads to the product being withdrawn.”
But industry sources say they have often been told by Trading Standards agencies that they themselves are restricted in their investigation potential due to a lack of resources.
Scrupulous manufacturers are suffering in this environment, the industry figure said, along with consumers, who often are not aware the products they are buying contain banned substances.
“Companies are really struggling against brands coming in from Eastern Europe and the US with products that contain highly effective but unsafe ingredients.
“UK brands (for the most part) are playing ball due to almost all UK manufacturers cleaning up their act. But it is creating a massive divide between compliant products from the UK and non-compliant products coming in from abroad.”
One UK-based online retailer spoken to by NutraIngredients today said it was removing a page featuring a product called Turbo 2.0 which had been reformulated without GABA (which often appears in a niacin-bound form called picamilon) by its Californian manufacturer, Pure Labs.
But the page remained live at the time of publication. It says picamilon can “rid your mind of what we call ‘background noise’ within our brain in which can cause disruption thereby promoting a strong sense of focus.”
Groups like the UK Health Food Manufacturers' Association (HFMA) and the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) have implemented measures against non-compliant firms and products and also called on regulators to do more.
After publication an MHRA spokesperson got in contact to add: “Each year the MHRA receives a large number of complaints, and requests for advice, about borderline medicinal products and our Medicines Borderline Section investigate these, case-by-case.
“There are a number of factors which determine the appropriate timeline for action, the primary one being whether the products give rise to public safety concerns. If a product, by virtue of its purpose or composition, gives rise to serious public safety issues then priority will be given to these.”
ESSNA chair Dr Adam Carey commented, “It is unfortunate that non-compliant substances such as GABA are still being imported from outside the EU and added to food supplements. However legislation within the EU is very clear and most of the industry, in particular ESSNA members, have compliance strategies in place which seek to identify any such issues and abide by all legislation to ensure the safety of their consumers.”
“It’s true that stronger enforcement of the law needs to be applied and this is why ESSNA is working to support this by engaging with non-compliant organisations who may not be aware of their issues, as well as escalating to EU regulatory authorities where needed. ESSNA also continues to encourage members of the public, and we encourage you too, to report any and all products containing banned/medicinal ingredients to us through our very straightforward online form, and we will bring them to the attention of the proper authorities.
Dr Carey added: "We have successfully resolved dozens of cases of companies selling non-compliant products to date, with many more presently under investigation as a result of our activities. We believe that the best way to eradicate banned products that are still available to consumers today is to work collectively as an industry.”