Let’s Start a Revolution
By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO)
Everything can be changed…everything… the problem is not the “how” but rather the “why.” If you believe the “why” is big enough, you will figure out the “how.” Many industry experts will say this issue cannot be changed. I think it can if—and only if—consumers start making some noise. I also think the “why” is pretty big, but I will let you decide for yourself.
OK so who takes dietary supplements? Statistics say that over half of you reading this do, and that number is growing. How many know where their supplement is made? What does it say? Most likely somewhere in the Midwest, but if not most importantly somewhere in the good old US—yea ‘Merica!
But wait, does it say “manufactured for”? Because that means the marketing company that sells it is located at that address but not the plant they contracted to make it. Don’t get too alarmed though as most supplement companies actually do this as it cuts down on overhead. So remain calm because this plant that your supplement is made at is probably still located in the US.
Now we get to the million—no, scratch that—billion dollar question…where do the raw ingredients come from??? Not in the US, not in Canada, not in Mexico, but the People’s Republic of China.
If you recall back in 2007-2008 there was a scandal involving tainted pet food in North America and infant formula in China. The contaminant, melamine, caused renal failure and death in animals and caused a reported 300,000 cases of infant illness, 50,000 infants to be hospitalized, and most tragically 6 infant deaths.
Now what was melamine, a product used to make things like laminate flooring and dry erase boards, doing in food?
The simple answer is greed: melamine caused a false positive for nitrogen levels, which is the test used to check the protein content of milk. The farmers watered down the milk and spiked it with melamine so the people buying it would not know the difference. This practice was also being used in plant protein mixes as well and that is how the pet food became contaminated. The people selling the raw ingredients knew the tests being utilized and war-gamed the system to increase their profits.
But that was 2008; surely 5 years later that problem has been fixed, right?
In an article from March of this year the National University of Singapore Business School wrote a piece covering the melamine scandal and found little has changed in the industry with the final quote used being the most telling:
“It comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis—the cost of violating food safety regulations remains low compared to potential profits.”
Sadly the unscrupulous business practice doesn’t stop at milk. Bilberry is a berry revered for its salubrious properties. The test used to grade bilberries is UV spectrophotometry; basically an ultra violet light is used to identify the level of anthocyanins in the berry; which are the healthy flavonoids in the berry that also gives it color. Just last week consumer labs released a warning about fake bilberry supplements with China being implicated as the main source.
The raw ingredient suppliers learned that by spiking batches with azo dyes they could get higher readings of anthocyanins with less actual berries. One of the dyes used, Sudan I, is considered both genotoxic and carcinogenic by the European Union.
Some of you might be thinking “Where is the FDA?” The simple answer is: stretched thin. The FDA has a difficult enough time inspecting facilities in the US; let alone international. The FDA is only able to inspect less than 1% of the regulated products entering the country.
The FDA does have an office in China but inspectors have to notify their Chinese counterparts first, who then set up an appointment with the facilities owners for the inspection to take place. Yup, the owners are basically getting a Warning Order that the FDA is coming days before the inspections takes place; I will let that sink in…
Now to the supplement companies purchasing the raw ingredients: I recently had a conversation over lunch with the director of research and development of a supplement company. He stated his company tested all their raw ingredients coming through the door to not only ensure they were indeed what the label said but that they were also free of things like heavy metals.
I asked him if he could make a product without ingredients from China and he said he was not sure and even if so the cost would be at least 10 times greater; too expensive for most companies. And although they test for known contaminants because melamine was not a known contaminant it was never tested for. Essentially, although there are some companies testing raw ingredients they receive they are not going to catch an intentional contaminant. So it will most likely be the consumer’s adverse reaction that will catch the next contaminant not currently screened for…
Which brings me to you, the reader. Either you are a consumer of supplements or you know someone who does. Every day you or this person casts a vote with your dollars. Up until this point homeostasis in the industry has been maintained because no one has rocked the boat. The sheep have continued to follow along with the flock because few have questioned “Where does this come from?”
But the RU community is comprised not of sheep and casual passengers but of boat-rockers and sheep dogs. So here is your challenge: you and/or your supplement taking friend grab the bottle of vitamins, protein powder, amino acids, etc. you are taking and find the company listed on the bottle. Call or e-mail the company and simply ask “where do you get your raw ingredients from?” Whatever answer they give you post it below this article. Group participation is HIGHLY encouraged so invite friends and family to join in.
The end game is if enough people start asking questions and letting the companies know that there is a demand for American raw ingredients in the supplement industry the companies will have no choice but figure out a way to supply it. But it will take a revolution to get there—so let’s start it!