Cutting out the ‘cowboys’: Let’s get serious on botanical adulteration

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

Cutting out the ‘cowboys’: Let’s get serious on botanical adulteration
Industry, trade associations, legislators and law enforcement all need to play a bigger role in cleaning up the botanical and herbal supplements industry – and it needs to start now, with joined up thinking, more inclusive certifications and harsher penalties.

One of the most read articles on NutraIngredients this month is an article I recently wrote after research highlighted the ‘hidden dangers’ of botanical and herbal supplements​ – which often claim to be ‘natural’, but are semi-regularly busted because they are found to contain banned substances and active ingredients that should not be there.

In the three weeks before that we have reported on cases of the banned substance DMAA  being ‘widely available’​ and arrests after banned sibutramine was found in illegal slimming pills​ – again.

While many within the industry tell me, and no doubt repeat to themselves, that this is a small problem – a few ‘cowboys’ ruining the good name for everyone else – I can’t help but think that there’s a more endemic issue that is allowing it to happen.

I find myself asking why people are not doing more to stop it. Why regulators are shying away from stepping up? Why enforcement is left to a few small groups? And why retailers – both bricks and mortar and online – do not do more to stamp out the criminals and cowboys?

It won’t be easy, of course. But that’s no reason to sit back and say “it’s too hard to control.”

‘Minority’ is a relative term

The simple fact is that this sort of thing does not happen in other industries. Or at least doesn’t happen to the same degree.

Nobody bought a frozen lasagne and found it ‘contaminated’ with banned pharmaceutical. Horsemeat, maybe​ – but not an illegal drug that could kill you.

Similarly, people do not (generally) go to ebay or to online classified ads to buy their medication. I’ve never heard of somebody buying a packet of paracetamol off Craigslist or Facebook – so why do people think it’s OK for, or so hard to stop, people buying dodgy botanical supplements from these places?

Yes, of course this is​ a minority of products - especially when you consider the hundreds of thousands of safe, legal, supplements bought from genuine manufacturers and legitimate retailers.

Yes, it does tar everyone with the same brush to condemn a whole industry. But the ‘minority’ selling illegal and adulterated supplements is still bigger than any ‘minority’ trying to sell other adulterated or black market pills or products. Minority is a relative term.

We need stronger laws to prevent this. We need better enforcement. And we need the wider industry to stop shrugging it off as ‘a few cowboys’ and admit that the problem is worse than elsewhere. Better yet, come up with a real plan to deal with it.

Coming together

I’ve asked several people about the potential for a basic safety or quality mark – be that something legislated by the EU, or something the industry comes together to do via it’s associations.

Legislators and the wider food industry has managed to create and popularise certifications and quality marks for Fairtrade products​, for organic products​, for halal foods​ and for sports nutrition products​ - which does exactly what the wider industry could and should be doing by providing a quality assurance against banned substances. 

Seriously ... why can’t we do the same for the wider botanical and herbal supplements industry? If you could tell consumers, retailers and the rest of the world that only supplements meeting strict standards get the mark, if everyone knew to look out for that mark and to not accept products that did not have it, we might avoid some of the headlines and unfortunate casualties.

Not everybody can be saved. Not every cowboy can be cut out. But by working together, manufacturers, suppliers, trade associations, legislators and law enforcement can do a lot more to stop adulteration and illegal activity.

Related topics: Regulation & Policy

Related news

Show more


Adulteration is the Achilles Heel of Quality

Posted by Mark JS Miller, PhD, MBA,

To gain the respect of the healthcare community products need to be of a certain standard that is verifiable and pro-health. Adulteration is not consistent with that and is not acceptable. Whether it be deliberate where the supplement is just a vehicle for an illegal substance, or alternatively a supply chain that is sloppy & questionable. Nice article, and yes we as an industry, need to make sure our reputation is solid.

Report abuse

Not so fast. Be honest.

Posted by Linda V. Howland,

You're just trying to cut out the small guys who make useful, often inexpensive, very rarely dangerous supplements. Your primary concern is your own bottom line.

Report abuse

Follow us


View more