In the recent affair, mainstream media outlets—in particular The New York Times—were quick to jump on the bandwagon driven by New York AG Eric Schneiderman and allege that many botanical supplements on the market in that state were fraudulent. The story spread quickly with little alteration through other media outlets. By the time questions were raised and started to gain media traction about the appropriateness of DNA testing in this case the damage was already done.
Thinning newsroom staffs
A herd reporting mentality has always been a facet of the media landscape, and may be even more entrenched now as media outlets pare back staff, cutting the number of available man hours that could be used for checking facts before a story airs or is printed. Newspapers in particular have ruthlessly eliminated copy editing positions, a function in the newsroom where questions about the basic structure of a story, including the veracity of its assertions, might likely be raised. Thus a key gatekeeper function has been greatly weakened as newspapers, which have seen both readership and ad revenue decline precipitously over the past 15 years, struggle to survive.
All too often in these cases the dietary supplement industry has reacted from a defensive position. Input from trade organizations, while undoubtedly informed and useful, is often given less weight by media outlets, which take such information with a grain of salt, as one of the primary functions of trade groups after all is to defend the interests of their members. What might carry more weight in the wider society would be a committee of experts, ready to weigh in such matters as appropriate testing methods to aid investigators and the reporters who detail their activities to help them do their jobs better. If adulterated or mislabeled dietary supplements are in fact on the market, to lend credence to the industry’s claim of effective self regulation, it would be industry’s best interests to aid those groups seeking to expose them.
“I think it would be a great idea to have such a committee,” said Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). “A committee of experts, ideally not vested in the industry, such as university experts. For example, the experts at the University of Mississippi, where they actually train FDA inspectors. They were dismayed with how DNA testing was used in this case.” Upton recently penned a thoughtful letter to Schneiderman on the issue, and included an addendum on appropriate testing methods that could have been used in this case that extended to more than 50 pages.
“People like the Attorney General and even plaintiffs attorneys should be checking with known experts in the area before they fly off half cocked. This was one of those fire-aim-ready type of things,” said Mark Blumenthal, director of the American Botanical Council (ABC). “Having a committee of some sort would have been very helpful because it might have tempered the AG’s activities and tempered the timing of their announcement and might have led them to commission studies via validated methods.”
“ABC has been very forthright and very active in the area of botanical identity and quality. We are not in any way defensive about the issue. We are proactive on the issue,” he said.
One area for reporters or investigators to start would be the information flowing from the Botanical Adulterants Program, a joint effort of ABC, AHP, and the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. The program looks at commonly adulterated herbs and offers peer-reviewed methods of testing for known adulterants. The information is reliable and credible and the program is often cited as a beacon for the industry, but the peer-review process itself is slow, and thus limits the program’s current scope. AHP itself also offers a variety of monographs on various herbs that include testing methods, and of course there are reams of information available from the US Pharmacopeia, the official national standards setting body.
Making sense of all that on deadline would be a challenge for even the most conscientious reporter. A committee of experts committed to be available on short notice could help direct reporters or investigators to the most appropriate resources quickly. So if a committee is called for, who should be on it? As far as matters of herbal supplement quality is concerned, Upton has some definite ideas.
“What type expertise you would you need? I think it’s always good to have a botanist involved. I’d have an experienced herbalist, and a natural products chemist. And a classically trained pharmacognosist, one trained like the European pharmacognosists, someone like Stefan Gafner (PhD) from ABC,” Upton said.
“Now that they are going after the claims part, that calls for a different expertise," he added. "And the next thing we will start to hear is that there is no safety data that needs to be submitted on these products before they go to market. So including a toxicologist familiar with herbal products would be good. There is the question of where such a committee would live. Under AHP? ABC? Or one of the trade organizations?"
Upton offered an example from years ago when a Time Magazine reporter started working on a cover story about vitamins and other supplements. The default position was that the products were inefficacious and the manufacturers were in effect defrauding their customers.
“She was planning on doing a huge exposé of the industry. Then she started contacting nutrition experts like Jeff Blumberg at Tufts University and others. She ended up writing a story about the power of vitamins, a 180-degree turnaround from the exposé she was going to write,” Upton said.
“She spoke at an industry event later and what she said was, ‘You people have to understand that within the mainstream media your reputation is only one rung up from the tobacco industry'. That is telling, and that hasn’t changed in the meantime. There is not a deep respect for what this industry has to offer,” he said.