For toxic fat burners like DNP, libido pills spiked with pharmaceuticals and banned botanicals, internet sale has become a common theme in authority recall warnings about dangerous supplements.
Part of this is the lack of a paper trail left behind the products which makes it difficult for authorities to track down the people behind the websites as well as the relatively low start-up costs and ubiquitous market access.
Indeed two pilot surveys by Swedish regional authorities found 30-50% of food e-commerce businesses based in Sweden were not registered with the local authority as required by the country's law.
The Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation tasked the Swedish National Food Agency (NFA) to improve controls of internet trade, especially trade in food supplements, back in December 2015.
Now the NFA has presented its plans, which will see regional controls centralised and IT skills honed.
“Coordination would be bigger and expertise gathered in one place,” the NFA said.
It also wants to have greater contact with other agencies like that for medical products, tax and customs as well as reaching out to industry groups.
Leo Jager, head of the NFA’s unit for trade and inter-agency cooperation, told us: "We see a need for a long-term strategy for food controls in this area. Important elements of this strategy are national and international cooperation, training, bench-marking and mutual exchange of experience and, last but not least, a central function for the monitoring of
Jager added: "In part these proposals are an extension of work already being done by the NFA, but with the need for added focus, financing and new ways of working.
"Exactly in which way our proposals will be implemented is something which is still a matter of discussion and remains to be seen."
With 20%+ of all food sold expected to be sold online within the next 10 years, this is an issue of increasing concern for the authority.
“The selling and purchasing of foodstuffs through the internet has steadily increased in the past few years and this trend is expected to continue. As a result of this development there is also a need to look at the official controls of e-commerce with foodstuffs,” Jager said.
Mats Nilsson, managing director of Swedish supplement association Svensk Egenvård, told us he would be meeting with the NFA to discuss the plans next week.
He said the development was essentially positive but he would be keeping an eye on how it was carried forward in practice.
Closing the gap
”The NFA is very strict with pharmacies and shops, but don’t check the internet at all. It’s strange they don’t look at the internet,” he told us.
”We end up with bad articles in the media, and mostly it’s about companies and products on the internet.”
He said he hoped the changes would close the gap between regulation on shelves and regulation on the web, and help protect the reputation of legitimate on and offline players.
Svensk Egenvård statistics suggest 15% of all supplements sold in Sweden are sold on the internet and for sports nutrition supplements this is even higher at 45%. This is an upward trend expected to continue.
Regulation of e-commerce is an issue that has also hit the EU stage.
Last year a European Commission food supplement report called for greater harmony in an increasingly digital age.
It praised EU member state projects like the anonymous online purchasing and testing of supplements by authorities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
“Such examples of good practice could provide the basis for a discussion with member states on practical steps which could be taken in order to improve the effectiveness of controls on food supplements,” the report said.