The report, aired on the CBC show Marketplace, alleged that Emergen-C, made by Pfizer, and and two protein powders, GNC Lean Shake 25 and Cytosport Muscle Milk, did not meet label claims.
The show alleged that the Emergen-C product had less than half of its stated level of vitamin C, based on tests conducted through the Canadian testing firm Labdoor. The original test was faulty, and a retest showed no issue with the product being understrength.
Similarly, the protein powders, once again based on original data from Labdoor, had evidence of ‘spiking,’ with the GNC product claimed to have have been up of more than 50% of material other than what was specified on the label. The news report was not specific about what materials were alleged to have been used to ‘spike’ the product.
The news report retracting the show said that the original tests were done at an independent lab ‘recommended’ by Labdoor founder Neil Thanedar, who the report said agreed to analyze the results, so the relationship between the two is somewhat unclear. But quotes from Thanedar in the story made it clear that he was taking responsibility for the mistakes.
“We're apologizing to your audience. And we're promising to improve ourselves," Thanedar told Marketplace's Erica Johnson.
"We've done this test (of protein powder) more than a hundred times. And we haven't seen an issue like this. And it's incredibly frustrating for us because this is all the work we do," he was quoted as saying. Despite taking responsibility for the mistakes, Thanedar said that he could not say where or how the mistakes in the process occurred.
Responsibility lauded, shoddy reporting decried
Industry observers lauded CBC for stepping up to the plate to try to right a wrong done to supplements, and for being transparent about how it obtained its data. Despite grave misgivings from botanical identity testing experts about how his initial DNA tests were done this is something that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has avoided doing. Schneiderman has refused to provide more detail about this initial round of testing, cloaking that information under the guise of an ‘ongoing investigation.’ The DNA testing done in his subsequent attack on Devil’s claw supplements seems to have been more professionally conducted, though industry experts have serious concerns about the general thrust of that investigation, too.
“It is astonishing that, once again, incorrect lab tests (New York AG and now CBC News) have led to false accusations and harm to important companies in our North American industry. While errors in lab testing do happen, it is almost beyond imagination that CBC would get this so wrong. It is, likewise, puzzling that they would have used an analytical lab (Labdoor) that is virtually unknown to the industry at large, and no one seems to be able to explain what went wrong or why,” Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Product Alliance told NutraIngredients-USA.
“It is maddening that critics of the dietary supplement industry are frequently incompetent when it comes to the technical issues such as lab testing, analytical competence and, at times, a basic understanding of the industry itself. We hope that this second round of egg on the face will serve as notice to others intent on publishing test results that it takes more than a laptop and a microphone to be an investigative reporter,” he said.
Independent testing voice
Labdoor was founded to provide an independent testing voice to consumers who want to take a deeper dive into dietary supplement quality. Thanedar told NutraIngredients-USA last year that he wanted to found the company on a model that was funded by consumers, rather than the industry-supported models already in the marketplace.
“It was the business model with the problem for me. The payment goes to the lab and the data goes to the company. I wanted payment to come from the consumer and the data to go to the consumer. This is the first time consumers have full access to the data,” Thanedar said.
The products that Labdoor tests are ranked on an alphabetical scale, and are judged against category criteria such as label claim accuracy, nutritional value, safety and projected efficacy. Efficacy is judged both by delivery form and the specifics of the ingredients, for multi ingredient products. For example for products containing minerals, such as the prenatal vitamins, Thanedar said that using more bioavailable forms as elucidated in the literature would garner higher marks. Products are then ranked on both highest quality and best value lists.
Attempts to contact Labdoor were unsuccessful. The occasional mistake or false positive is part of the testing business, but so is catching those mistakes before they get out the door, so the fact that Thanedar could not say how the mistakes occurred in this case would have to be seen as a blow to the company’s credibility.