Fish Fry?

March 30, 2010

Consumers ranked omega-3 as their number-one supplement of choice-even over multivitamins-in ConsumerLab's 2010 vitamin survey. That's good news for the omega-3 industry.

Originally Published NO March 2010

Consumers ranked omega-3 as their number-one supplement of choice-even over multivitamins-in ConsumerLab's 2010 vitamin survey. That's good news for the omega-3 industry.

However, as the saying goes, with the good comes the bad, and so came news on March 2 of a lawsuit accusing eight high-profile marketers of fish oil supplements of not complying with California's Proposition 65 requirements for products containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). (PCB is a "persistent" manmade toxin, linked to cancer and reproductive toxicity, that fish can absorb from their environment and that can then be carried through the food-or dietary supplement-chain.)

The defendants are CVS Pharmacy, GNC, Now Health Group, Omega Protein, Pharmavite's Nature Made brand, Rite Aid, Solgar Inc., and TwinLab.

Prop 65 requires that any product sold in California containing more than 90 parts per billion (ppb) of PCB carry a warning to consumers on its label. According to the lawsuit, lab tests found PCB levels in all 10 of the supplements tested-including products whose labels stated that the products had been refined to remove or reduce contaminants. PCB levels ranged widely, with one supplement having 70 times more PCB than others. (Visit www.fishoilsafety.com for more details on the case.)

The plaintiffs are environmentalists Chris Manthey and Benson Chiles, as well as Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation, a nonprofit with a history of Prop 65 lawsuits. The plaintiffs say they'd like to see PCB levels listed on all fish oil supplement labels, so that "we can let the consumers decide" which supplements they deem safe.

Beyond labeling, the plaintiffs were also clear about their wider ambition to spark an industrywide decrease in PCB levels. And, they intend to pursue testing of other fish oil supplements. "There are more than 100 fish oil supplements on the market…and we have no way of knowing if others have more or less PCB contamination than these first 10 that we tested," said David Roe, an attorney in the case.

Says Chiles, "Our message to the public when it comes to fish oil supplements is buyer beware."

Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (Washington, DC), cautioned industry and consumers that the actual levels of PCBs found in the majority of the products tested by the lawsuit do not appear to exceed the Prop 65 threshold.

Shao also noted that California is the only state whose labeling requirement employs the stringent 90 ppb PCB threshold. (FDA's own permitted level of PCB in fish is markedly higher, at 2000 ppb.) "It's simply a labeling issue under a single state-a statute for a single state-that doesn't affect any other state. It's a labeling issue, not a safety issue," Shao told me.

In a press statement, he added, "It is important to put this into context. PCBs are ubiquitous within the environment, which means that all fish-whether fish found in oceans and rivers or fish oil supplements-contain at least trace amounts of PCBs. In fact, conventional food forms of fish contain higher levels of PCBs than fish oil supplements, in part because supplement fish oil products go through a refining process which reduces PCBs and other contaminants."

It remains to be seen how publicity over this lawsuit might impact fish oil supplement sales. Many people take these products because they feel that they offer important health benefits. In light of the growing positive research and consumer preference that continues to build around omega-3s, I expect fish oil will be able to stand the heat.

Jennifer Kwok
Editor