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Why the Supplements Industry Is So Powerful

Mar 11, 2015

After tanking on Tuesday, the stocks of supplements retailers GNC Holdings and The Vitamin Shoppe recovered somewhat on Wednesday. Thanks to a federal law that protects the industry, there's only so much law enforcement can do about a business that, on one hand, is widely characterized as dicey and, on the other hand, reports $5 billion in sales a year.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Tuesday announced that his office is leading a coalition of state attorneys general to widen his examination of the industry with the goal to "enhance transparency" and ensure that the products actually contain what their labels claim to contain, and nothing more.

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The coalition includes the attorneys general of three states—New York, Connecticut, and Indiana—along with Puerto Rico.

In February, Schneiderman announced that tests solicited by his office determined that nearly four in every five herbal supplements tested at major retailers in New York didn't contain the ingredients stated on the label. And more than a third of them contained "contaminants" such as rice, pine, beans, and asparagus. Schneiderman's office said the supplements were purchased at GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreen's. Schneiderman ordered those retailers to stop selling some store-brand supplements, including ginseng, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea and garlic, and requested information from the companies about how those products are processed.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition—a lobbying group whose members are makers of supplements—claimed the tests used were not accurate. GNC said its own testing, along with what it claimed was an independent, third-party test, "confirm in no uncertain terms that our products are safe, pure, properly labeled and in full compliance with all regulatory requirements." Wal-Mart, meanwhile, insisted that the products it removed from shelves "contain accurately labeled ingredients and are safe."

The Herbal Plus brand products named in Schneiderman's letter will be back on the shelves soon, GNC promised.

The federal government doesn't have much power over the supplements industry thanks to a 1994 law, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which prevents the products from the scrutiny and approval given to other drugs. "I could pretty much create something this afternoon in my kitchen and sell it and not have to do any kind of testing ahead of time," author Catherine Price told TIME last month. Price is the author of Vitamania, a new book about the supplements and vitamins industries.

The chief sponsor of the 1994 is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose state is home to the headquarters of many marketers of supplements, who also happen to be major campaign donors. He continues to boast of his sponsorship of that law, and claims that supplements help keep him spry at age 77.

Despite the industry's worries about a new assault on their business practices, it's not clear, given the protections the industry enjoys whether much will be done to crimp sales in the long term. Changing labels or ensuring that labels match the actual ingredients might be all the industry has to do to call off the dogs. But it's still perfectly legal, for example, to sell St. John's Wort, which is widely believed to relieve symptoms of depression despite a lack of science backing up that notion. The label on GNC's Herbal Plus St. John's Wort claims the product "promotes positive mood balance."

The FDA has a pretty good guide to the regulation (or lack thereof) of dietary supplements.

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