Who's Watching the Watchdog?

February 1, 2001

4 Min Read Who's Watching the Watchdog? Who's Watching the Watchdog?

In the past two years, there has been a spate of television and print reportsabout dietary supplements not meeting their label claims. From the BostonGlobe to 20/20, media reps are having products tested, or arereporting the results of product testing from other organizations, primarilythose of the privately held firm (CL). This organization,established in 1999, has a mission of "providing independent test resultsand information to help consumers and health care professionals evaluate health,wellness and nutrition products." It also is a for-profit enterprise,charging top dollar for guaranteeing to include products in its testing and touse its logo and name on "qualified" products.

"We started ConsumerLab because there was a need from the consumer'sperspective to understand which products were better quality products outthere," said Tod Cooperman, founder of CL. The organization, whichCooperman describes as a cross between a Standard & Poor's rating agency anda full-service publisher, has posted results for 10 of its tests, with fouradditional reviews set for publication in the next few months. Among thosecompleted are American/Asian ginseng, calcium and Ginkgo biloba; coming soon arereports on multivitamins/multiminerals, vitamin E, echinacea and St. John's wort.

Testing is conducted on products purchased by CL, using published or commontesting methods, on a variety of criteria based on what the important qualityissues are in that category. Cooperman said CL selects a variety of brands in aparticular category for its product review. Companies can assure that theirproduct is tested in a review through CL's Guaranteed Testing or Ad Hoc Testingprograms, which cost between $3,000 and $7,000 per product, per category. Byparticipating in these programs, the manufacturer maintains proprietary controlover the results of the test, and can decide whether to allow the results to beposted online or included in CL's category Technical Report. According toCooperman, many companies are now paying to have products included in thetesting. "We have created a nice environment for people to have thingstested in a non-threatening environment," he said.

After the tests, the results are posted on the CL Web site, including a listof which products passed the test. Names of products that failed the test, whichCooperman estimates is around 25 percent of products, are not posted on thesite. A Technical Report with the results of the tests is available for purchase($900), but only includes information on those products that were independentlyselected; products tested through the paid testing program are only included inthe Technical Report with client agreement. Even the data in the TechnicalReport is copyrighted; purchasers sign an agreement that it is for"internal use only," and media outlets cannot publish the names ofcompanies that pass or fail (whether found on the Web site or in the TechnicalReport).

Some in the industry have questioned whether not releasing the names does adisservice to consumers. If a consumer is looking for a glucosamine supplementand reads a media report that many of them did not pass CL's tests, he must goonline to find out which brands did pass. As a more serious example, when someginseng products were found by CL to contain the fungicide quintozene, whichCL's press release noted was a health hazard, it did not release the names ofthose products. "Ideally, we would like to be able to do that,"Cooperman said. "But what really keeps us from doing that are timeconstraints and even potential litigation." In fact, after the ginsengreport was issued, the American Botanical Council (ABC) noted that the industryhad already set a no tolerance level for quintozene but that there was noproduct recall because neither the industry nor the government thought it poseda health hazard. "These were likely older products in a rapidly changingmarketplace, and the issue CL brings up has already been addressed," saidABC's Wayne Silverman.

CL has several products under consideration for product review this year,Cooperman said. The products to be reviewed are decided by using market researchon the top selling categories and talking with manufacturers about possiblereviews. Cooperman said the company is looking at isoflavones, MSM, omega-3fatty acids, kava, milk thistle and garlic. He added that CL also tries togather information from manufacturers on methods for testing and has used up tothree methods in testing products that don't have a published methodology froman organization such as U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP).

Companies whose products pass the CL testing also have the option oflicensing the use of the CL name and/or seal for use in advertising andpromotion. The rights vary with cost, which ranges from $7,000 to more than$20,000 (per product, per category). Cooperman said there are only a handful ofcompanies currently licensing the CL name and logo.

Cooperman said the company has filled a niche in the marketplace. "Therewas a great need for a third party to be evaluating dietary supplements fortheir quality," he said. "And if a product is part of our paid testingprogram, the manufacturer can figure out how to fix things in a non-threateningenvironment."

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