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.
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.
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.