The review of multivitamin/multimineral products from ConsumerLab has attracted considerable interest from mainstream media. The singling out of Vitamin Shoppe's product has caused consternation from some in the industry who called on the retailer to take swift action to minimise potential damage to the category as a whole.
The matter re-opens debate over self-regulation from an industry that has been working hard to build a responsible and credible reputation.
"Negative publicity won't go away until we, as an industry, engage in self-regulation and help ensure that current government regulation is enforced," the Council for Responsible Nutrition's vice president for communications, Judy Blatman, told NutraIngredients-USA.
ConsumerLab said the multivitamin was contaminated with 15.3 micrograms of lead per daily serving. This is more than ten times the amount of lead permitted without a warning label in California - the only state to regulate lead in supplements - and several times the normal daily exposure to lead.
In a statement on the withdrawal, which is said to have taken place last Friday, the Vitamin Shoppe staunchly stood by its quality and safety safeguards. CEO Tom Tolworthy said the company has asked its contract manufacturer and an independent scientific lab to conduct separate tests on the product.
"Our efforts to more fully investigate these allegations have been hampered by the unwillingness of the company making the allegations to share its complete results and testing methodology with us," he said. "Using a scientifically valid testing methodology is absolutely necessary to achieve reliable results."
However this was disputed by Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab, who told NutraIngredients-USA: "Anyone can access our testing methods."
According to ConsumerLab, analyses for lead were performed using an atomic absorption/graphite furnace method or ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectroscopy).
"Every problem we report is confirmed in two separate laboratories and the identity of the product was blinded to both," said Cooperman. He added: "We've tested other products from the Vitamin Shoppe in the past and they were fine."
The Vitamin Shoppe was not able to provide NutraIngredients-USA with further comment in time for this article.
"Our hypothesis is that the contamination may be coming from a number of herbal ingredients in the product," said Cooperman. "Because we've never seen such a high content of lead in a vitamin or mineral supplement before, we've only seen it with herbals."
ConsumberLab said it randomly selected 21 products that were then independently tested. The group said only ten of these products met their labeled contents and standards.
"All Vitamin Shoppe products are manufactured in compliance with the Food and Drug Administration's Good Manufacturing Practices for food and highest industry standards," said Tolworthy. "In order to assure that we have all of the information needed, we have asked our contract manufacturer and an independent scientific lab to conduct separate tests."In Cooperman's opinion sufficient self-regulation is enough for dietary supplement manufacturers to avoid running into any such problems and he refuted the Vitamin Shoppe's defense that it uses Good Manufacturing Practices.
"There are no Good Manufacturing Practices yet, they haven't even published," said Cooperman of the long-awaited regulations that form part of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).
Draft GMPs were published in 2003, and the final version was last heard of at the Office of Management and Budget, the final step in the law-making process, in October 2005. This step that usually takes just 90 days.
This newest wave of negative attention began with reviews of a recently released book - Natural Causes by Dan Hurley - which allegedly slams regulation of the supplement industry. The subsequent backlash from the industry has been the subject of many articles and blogs.
Such controversy highlights the potential for product oversight to dent the industry's credibility for the long term. The main trade associations have also stressed that the supplement industry needs to present a credible face through increased publicity.
For instance in 2006, the CRN announced its intention to armor a multimillion dollar industry-wide project to counter a proliferation of bad news on the industry. The trade association has chosen a public relations agency and is more than half way to gathering funding for year one of the project.
Similarly, the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance (DSEA), a industry coalition, this week announced a paid advertising campaign aimed at building consumer confidence in dietary supplements.
The Just Like Me campaign is set to be unveiled in February and will be featured in television and radio spots, though DSEA is still looking for industry funding to fill some of the $15-20m it would cost to have an effective national media campaign.