ConsumerLab.com co-founder on NPR
It took a quiet Saturday morning for me to catch up on the fact that the co-founder of ConsumerLab.com, Dr William (Bill) Obermeyer, was featured on NPR earlier this week. Allison Aubrey of NPR's Morning Edition produced a thoughtful four-and-a-half minute segment on the seven-year mission of Dr Obermeyer and colleagues to provide consumers with independent laboratory testing of specific brands of herbal medicines and dietary supplements.
Readers of Terra Sigillata will know that I have long recommended ConsumerLab.com as one of the top subscription services to learn about herbal medicines. (See my lengthy post on the best objective herbal medicine information sources for under $100 per year).
Of course, there are limits to what ConsumerLab.com can do as they do not conduct clinical trials with specific supplements nor do they determine whether recommended doses produce blood levels of active constituents consistent with biological effects observed in vitro.
But their services are an admirable good start: they assess specific supplement formulations for content of purported active constituents and assure purity by testing for heavy metal contamination. The latter point is critical since many plants will sequester metals from the soil they are grown in and the Eastern herbal medicine cultures often intentionally add heavy metals like mercury and arsenic to their supplements.
You may be asking how this can happen in the US where a major pharmaceutical company is currently being decimated by lawsuits as to whether their anti-inflammatory drug did or didn't create cardiovascular risks. Well, a regulatory double-standard exists here for "drugs" vs. "supplements", where the latter are classified under the food side of the Food and Drug Administration.
The most interesting part of Dr Obermeyer's story is that he worked for the US FDA prior to starting ConsumerLab.com. In fact, it was he, pharmacognosy colleague Dr Joseph Betz, and their team who published a 1998 New England Journal of Medicine report on the mistaken adulteration of a herbal laxative supplement with Digitalis lanata, the plant source of useful but potentially toxic cardiac glycosides. Dr Obermeyer observed first-hand how limited the power of the FDA was in preventing such incidents from occurring in the first place.
In defense of the FDA, they can only enforce laws that are legislated by the US Congress. In the past, any proposals for stricter regulation of the dietary supplement industry has been met with strong opposition, usually funded by a natural foods industry whose monetary and political influence rivals that of medium-sized pharmaceutical companies.
There remain some concerns of potential conflicts of interest in that ConsumerLab.com outlicenses for a fee their seal of approval. In addition, companies can pay a fee to submit their products for comparative testing if they were not selected originally by ConsumerLab.com. But frankly, it is impossible to keep up with the dozens or hundreds of supplements that contain a certain herb, say, like valerian (Valerian officinale) as discussed in the NPR story, for the organization to test all on the support of $27/year subscriptions.
As you might suspect, ConsumerLab.com is not terribly popular among those in the herbal industry. In fact, a defamation suit was brought against them by a trade-group calling themselves the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). Last week, the suit was wisely struck down by the New York State Supreme Court. CRN was also playing some nasty games:
"CRN distributed a press release in January 2005 publicizing a letter that it simultaneously sent to the FTC alleging that ConsumerLab.com violated the FTC Act. CRN entitled its letter "Enforcement Action against ConsumerLab.com," creating the false impression that the FTC was involved in an action, which was never the case. The news release and letter were rife with false and misleading information about ConsumerLab.com. The FTC refused to take action with respect to CRN complaint, issuing a "no action" letter."
This is the same Council for Responsible Nutrition cited last week at Respectful Insolence for objecting to the reliance on evidence-based studies by a NIH-convened scientific panel to assess the utility of vitamin and mineral supplements:
The dietary supplement industry criticized the panel for not considering less scientifically rigorous studies that point to multiple benefits from multivitamin and mineral use.Hmmm...I'd be a wee bit embarrassed to be a paying member of CRN.
"They have done exactly what they set out to do, which is a review based solely on randomized controlled trial data, which results in a misleading picture," said Annette Dickinson, past president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry trade association.
Terra Sig applauds Dr Obermeyer and colleagues for doing what our government refuses to do - protect the consumer (and his/her money) from unsafe or substandard supplements.