Editorial: Who’s on the Consumer’s Side?

January 28, 2011

Before heading into the holidays, ConsumerLab.com and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) engaged in what could have been dubbed the “War of the Valerian.”

Before heading into the holidays, ConsumerLab.com and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) engaged in what could have been dubbed the “War of the Valerian.”

The two sparred over a November ConsumerLab report that claimed only 22% of the branded valerian (Valeriana officinalis) supplements ConsumerLab tested met its chosen standards for valerenic acid content and heavy-metal contamination.

AHPA questioned the transparency of ConsumerLab’s testing methods, as well as how it chose and applied quality standards-specifically, accusing ConsumerLab of misapplying standards for whole, fresh valerian root to dried, cut forms. ConsumerLab, which contracts testing out to independent laboratories but told me it keeps the names of those labs proprietary, maintains that adequate descriptions of its testing and standards are published with each review. However, AHPA calls those descriptions insufficient.

ConsumerLab’s attention-getting headlines potentially cast doubt, in the consumer’s mind, on the quality of entire ingredient categories. Perhaps with this in mind, AHPA points out that ConsumerLab holds products to standards it chooses, even if product manufacturers don’t proclaim to use those standards.

“It’s fine for ConsumerLab to hold companies, as well they should, to have what they state on their labels is in the product, but to hold companies to a standard that they’re not claiming is another matter altogether,” says Steven Dentali, PhD, AHPA’s chief science officer.

Considering that ConsumerLab often publishes negative reviews, it surprised me when ConsumerLab’s president, Tod Cooperman, MD, told me it’s the first time a ConsumerLab report has sparked this kind of industry backlash.

Cooperman defended his group: “We spend months determining the proper methods and criteria for evaluating the products. We’re in no rush to publish results until we’re absolutely certain they’re correct, which is why I think after 11 years of doing this, we’ve never been sued.” He also said that ConsumerLab’s vice president of research, William Obermeyer, PhD, is well qualified to select appropriate standards, noting that Obermeyer has a doctorate in pharmacognosy and was a natural products chemist for FDA.

Cooperman maintains that his group looks at supplements quality from a consumer’s point of view: “All that matters to us is which product a consumer should take-or not. We approach it through the eyes of our own family members and which supplements we’d recommend they take.”

The ConsumerLab/AHPA arguments beg the question of whether a more-ideal quality-control model exists for consumers. For instance, industry members criticize the fact that ConsumerLab also runs a for-profit Voluntary Certification Program in which companies can pay ConsumerLab to test their products. A point of contention with industry is that unlike with products it independently chooses to test, ConsumerLab does not openly publish results of paid tests, unless requested to do so by the paying companies. Meaning? Bad results can get swept under the rug. “How does that serve the consumer?” Dentali asks.

“I don’t think that when Consumer Reports tests cars, they go to Ford and say, ‘By the way, we’re going to test your Ford Fiesta in crash tests. If you pay us to do the crash tests and you fail, that’s between you and us,’” he continues. “[ConsumerLab] can’t play both sides of that coin and retain genuine credibility, in my eyes.” Cooperman argues that other certification/testing groups do not publish negative results for products that have failed, “nor warn consumers in any way of any issues that are out there.”

In his final chairman’s report, outgoing Council for Responsible Nutrition chair Mark LeDoux suggests what he calls an Underwriter Laboratory-a nonprofit, international body to test consumer products for quality. Unlike with ConsumerLab, all results, good and bad, would be public.

“If we’re really going to talk about protecting consumers, I think the issue should be a higher degree of transparency,” he says. “We should think bigger picture.”  

However, Dentali contends, “I think the better model is one we already have, where companies are required to meet their label claims [meaning FDA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices requirements]. I’m very hesitant and guarded about suggesting solutions to things where there are already solutions in place. I don’t think it’s a good idea to set up alternatives when what we already have in place isn’t being fully vetted.”