Bad company: How the industry can save itself – and consumers – from fake supplements

Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) CEO and President Steve Mister fights back against the narrative that dangerous products like tianeptine, or "gas station heroin," aren't the industry's problem. And in this column, he offers his recommendations to steer clear of illegal — and too often dangerous — products.

Steve Mister, President and CEO

January 19, 2024

4 Min Read

“When you run with dogs, you get fleas,” or so the old saying goes. Right now, this industry is getting fleas. But we can shed these pests.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a story about life-threatening tianeptine-containing products being sold as supplements and referred to them as “gas station heroin.” The reaction in some corners of the legitimate supplement industry was to say, “Wait a minute, those aren’t our products, so they’re not our problem.”

They are not our products, but they most certainly are our problem. As far as many consumers are concerned, products that have a Supplement Facts panel on them are dietary supplements. Period.

We see this conflation not just in media stories like the one The New York Times ran, but also in the flawed perceptions many doctors, consumer advocates and lawmakers have about the intentions and integrity of the industry. For example, proponents of the age-restriction bills for weight management supplements at the state level have now weaponized this confusion against us, lumping our products in with illegal products that contain anabolic steroids and illegal stimulants.

It goes without saying — this is not a good look for us. Every negative headline about these fake supplements tarnishes our industry’s reputation and invites eventual whiplash in the form of policy proposals establishing draconian regulations, like those that are now spreading through state houses across the country. The likes of tianeptine are not our products, but nevertheless our problem. Ignoring the problem and saying, “It’s not us,” won’t solve the issue.

Related:Tianeptine sales besmirch supplement industry’s reputation, but who is really at fault?

The role for responsible industry members is to marginalize these products and distinguish reputable brands from these fake supplements every chance we can. We must nudge, cajole and pressure FDA to do its job better, and we can’t just wait around for the agency to enforce its way to a solution. The market is too vast for that. As an industry, we need to take the wheel and steer clear of these illegal — and too often dangerous — products.

We can do this right now by:

  1. Using reputable third-party certification programs on our product labels. Reputable companies should market the fact that their brands are compliant with cGMPs (current good manufacturing practices) and tested by an independent lab. Categories that are particularly susceptible to illegal ingredients (including sexual enhancement and weight loss ingredients) should employ testing that specifically looks for these ingredients in raw materials; some certification programs are specially designed for these assurances.

  2. Holding FDA (collectively through the trade associations) accountable to do its job and enforce the law swiftly and aggressively against these fake supplements. We must keep the political pressure from Congress on the agency.

  3. Offering some legislative solutions that make it easier for FDA to get illegal products out of the market. FDA officials rightly point to the fact that the current law makes it difficult to prosecute a product that is marketed as a dietary supplement but doesn’t contain any of the ingredients that the law says a supplement must contain. If it’s not a supplement, what is it? We can fix that! (At the Council for Responsible Nutrition, we’re working on some legislative ideas to clarify the enforcement aspects of the law.)

  4. Marginalizing the scofflaws at retail. Sales executives in our category can use their considerable interactions with their retail partners to make sure they understand tianeptine and other dangerous chemicals are not legal supplements. Selling these products puts the retailer in considerable legal peril. If the concern for their customers’ health doesn’t persuade them to not sell these dangerous products, knowledge of their potential liability might.

  5. Supporting dietary supplement listing. Yes, it can help address the problem. Opponents of mandatory listing miss the fact that a mandatory registry system would be de facto enforced by the marketplace. Legitimate retailers simply would not sell products that are not listed in an FDA-mandated registry. Even major online retailers would remove those items because of the potential liability for selling a product that’s not in the mandatory listing. That squeezes the fake supplements further to the edges and away from unsuspecting consumers. It doesn’t eliminate the problem, but consumers who seek out illegal products will know when they go to the dark corners of the internet or backroom dealers, they’re not getting legitimate dietary supplements.

  6. Once enacted, pushing FDA to use the mandatory registry as a tool for finding and prosecuting those who don’t comply and provide accurate, factual information about their products.

We can continue to look toward government to solve our problems for us. Or we can begin to actively disassociate ourselves from the bad company that keeps hanging around uninvited. We can stop scratching and fix it. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of fleas.

At least for now, the choice is ours.

About the Author(s)

Steve Mister

President and CEO, Council for Responsible Nutrition

Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.

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