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Last summer, retailers were caught on tape making statements about supplements that violate the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Now, the trade associations are stepping in to improve retailer education about what they can and cannot say about dietary supplements.
Shopper: Will [fish oil] get you off the meds?
Seller: Yeah, bud.
Shopper: I’m currently on medication … aspirin, sometimes Tylenol. Is [taking gingko biloba concurrently] safe?
Seller: Yeah, yeah, it’s completely safe because it’s all natural. It’s an herb. This one is actually on sale. Buy one, get one free.
Shopper: So [phosphatidylserine] also helps with Alzheimer’s?
Seller: It does. It prevents it and if someone’s already at that stage, this might gradually reverse it.
For responsible natural product retailers, these conversations raise obvious red flags. And these are just a few of the interactions between supplement retailers and “elderly customers” that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) secretly recorded last year. To determine whether sellers use “deceptive or questionable marketing practices,” undercover GOA investigators visited or phoned 22 supplement retailers to solicit health care advice, inquire about product safety profiles, and ask whether certain supplements could prevent or cure diseases.
Clearly, the GAO found what it was looking for. These supplements sellers, along with others featured on the recordings, violated Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) guidelines that prohibit retailers (who don’t have proper medical credentials) from dispensing medical advice, diagnosing conditions, sharing testimonials and discussing drug-supplement interactions.
However, while these tapes are incriminating, industry leaders believe such misguided interactions are far from typical. “I don’t think the findings are representative—even the GAO didn’t claim that they were,” says John Gay, executive director and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association (NPA). “Yet, this issue affects us all. If there’s a story in the media about someone not following the rules, it impacts everyone.”
Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), agrees: “You can’t deny what’s on those tapes, but I don’t put a lot of stock into them. We don’t know how many stores the GAO visited—they could’ve gone to 100 stores that all passed [the GAO’s test]. We don’t for a minute think the tapes represent the mainstream of the industry. I think most stores are aware of these responsibilities.”
But even if the GAO findings aren’t in line with the majority of retailers, the industry should not dismiss them, Mister cautions. “Even though I don’t believe the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has it on top of their priority lists to keep going in and making examples of people, that doesn’t mean we should ignore this,” he says. “It’s a wake-up call that problems do exist, and we’re trying to clean it up.”
Retailers also are in favor of enforcing supplement-selling guidelines. “I feel that this is a good thing for retailers, since we should be ethical and responsible about this topic,” says Lynn Ellen Schimoler, grocery and wellness manager at City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont.