In our continual effort to stay focused, Food Safety News has only given limited attention to the $40-billion-a-year supplements industry. We do care about the damage caused by the low-lifes in the supplement business.

We certainly increased our attention this past week when federal agencies, led by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), announced multiple criminal and civil actions against more than 100 “makers and marketers” of dietary supplements and related products as part of a “sweep” that has been underway for the past year or so.

Woman shopping for supplementsGNC, Vitamin Shoppe, and Herbalife “nutrition” stores saw their stock prices plummet in advance of the announcement of the details of the “sweep,” which came late in the afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

GNC, whose stock was initially down 27 percent before ending the day down 6 percent, was the hardest hit. A month before the federal “sweep,” Oregon’s attorney general had charged the retailer with selling dietary supplements laced with an “amphetamine-alike” substance. GNC is defending itself against those state charges.

But the market was clearly spooked about the possibility that the feds, too, might turn on those retail chains. At this point, it’s clear that those in charge of the federal “sweep” see the manufacturers and marketing companies as the correct targets to clean up the supplements industry.

In one sense, they are probably right. As we’ve observed in the past, the only effective enforcement we’ve seen against “evil doers” in the supplements industry has been Federal Trade Commission actions that usually involve large fines and orders sometimes to shut down the worst offenders. But often these makers and marketers just pop up again someplace else with new brands and different labels.

The “sweep,” however, is bringing the full force of the federal government down on dietary supplements that are in violation of the law. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, IRS, and even the Pentagon are among the agencies involved.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CNR), a trade association founded in 1973 with a membership of more than 150 manufacturers of dietary supplements, ingredient suppliers and related service companies, issued a statement applauding the federal sweep.

“These actions should serve as a strong warning to any company selling products in the dietary supplement space that if you’re going to engage in illegal activity, you’re going to pay the price,” said CRN President and CEO Steve Mister.

CRN research, by the way, shows that 68 percent of adults in the U.S. take some form of dietary supplements and 84 percent express overall confidence in the safety, quality and effectiveness of those products.

Americans are big on taking vitamins and minerals, a category not typically associated with some Chinese-made chemicals being used as substitutes for natural ingredients. The fast growing categories are “herbals and botanicals,” along with “sports nutrition and weight management.”

Top among the targets of the criminal and civil cases announced this past week is Dallas-based USPlabs, which produces products, including Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, that have been flying off the shelves of those previously mentioned retail stores. This is a big-time prosecution, which came complete with arresting company executives and confiscating their investment accounts, real estate and fancy cars.

That’s what should happen if you’re caught using synthetic stimulants manufactured in a Chinese chemical factory without disclosing it on the label. However, one thing troubles me.

How is it possible that the retailer does not know what’s going on? Whether it’s the standalone “health” store or the “organic” grocery that dedicates half its shelf space to supplements, would they not know something fishy is going on when some amphetamine-like ingredient is causing extraordinary demand from people in line who are just a little too shaky?

Companies like USPlabs probably make sure everyone up and down their supply chain is well compensated. I don’t expect much out of the GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, or Herbalife stores, but it’s disappointing not to see some corporate responsibility on this issue out of the always politically active organic grocers who cash in on so much of the $40-billion supplements business.

If I missed their statement saying that preventing liver damage is more important to them than profits, I am sorry. I just have not come across it and I’ve looked everywhere.

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