That’s the view of Michael O’Keeffe, a sports writer for the New York Daily News who participated in a media panel at the 13th Annual Oxford International Conference on the Science and Regulation of Botanicals in Oxford, MS. The conference brings together regulators from FDA and researchers and quality and safety experts from across the globe under the aegis of the National Center for Natural Products Research that is connected to the School of Pharmacy at the University of Mississippi.
Doping in sports
O’Keeffe is a member of the newspaper’s sports investigative team, and has in recent years concentrated on the problems of doping in sports. He’s had a lot to write about. Members of industry are quick to point out that many of the products that cause the problems that turn up in O’Keeffe’s stories are not dietary supplements at all, but illegal drugs masquerading as supplements, a view corroborated by the Food and Drug Administration. Nevertheless, the perception that tainted supplements are the root of these evils continues to be a public relations nightmare for the industry and the sports nutrition sector in particular.
O’Keeffe has a unique perspective in that he was an editor at New Hope Natural Media’s Natural Foods Merchandiser before embarking on his daily newspaper career. So the charge of being poorly informed about the regulation of the dietary supplements industry—a charge frequently leveled at the writers of negative stories that appear in the mainstream media—doesn’t apply here.
“While I see how one could make the argument, it’s erroneous to assume that the mainstream media is the enemy of the supplements industry,” O’Keeffe told NutraIngredients-USA. “There are a lot of positive stories, too, in places like the Lifestyle sections. Then the industry is the beneficiary of a lot of free advertising.
“If we have a negative view of industry, it would be because of all of these scumbags and losers who are protecting themselves by wrapping DSHEA around their shoulders. Anybody can make a pill and put it out there without any testing,” O’Keeffe said.
“When we first starting looking at this stuff, I was the one who was saying that DSHEA had done a lot of good. There are a lot of legitmate companies. I do think you’ve got to be fair and not paint the whole industry with one broad brush. But I have also seen how people have used DSHEA to do a lot of bad things,” he said.
Sales still strong
The bad news has had an effect on the supplement industry in certain sectors, according to Marc Brush, editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal who also presented during the session. Omega-3 sales, for example, took a hit following a study (roundly criticized in industry) linking increased blood levels of these essential fatty acids with a heighted risk of prostate cancer. The news of this study is almost a year old now but sales have still not returned to their pre-study levels. Yet the overall sector is healthy, with NBJ sizing it now at about $35 billion annually and about 6% to 7% growth. The sports nutrtion slice of that pie is the healthiest of all, with Brush telling the audience that growth has been about 13% over the last year.
USA Today series
Frank Lampe of the United Natural Products Alliance showed a series of headlines from recent stories on the supplements industry. In particular, Alison Young, a reporter for USA Today, has been publishing a series of articles on the industry that has stretched to more than 20 installments. Her overarching theme has been that loose regulations and lax enforcement has enabled shady players access to the marketplace. In one of the stories in the series Young profiled the operators of dietary supplement companies who have criminal records, including Matt Cahill, principal of Driven Sports, a company that manufactures a preworkout product called Craze, which bodybuilding.com recognized with an award in 2012. The product contained what was billed as a dendrobium extract (a species of orchid). The company received a warning letter from FDA specifically mentioning that ingredient, saying that it should have have a NDI notification. The agency has also been on record as saying that it can find no evidence that the phenylethelamines that Driven Sports listed on the label as being part of the dendrobium extract could actually be found in the orchid itself.
For O’Keeffe, it all comes down to enforcement. If DSHEA is a workable framework, it needs to be adequately enforced. From his point of view, in today’s environment bad actors can push tainted products for far too long before they are shut down. Thus, the frequent refrain of athletes who test positive for doping—namely that they are the unwitting victims of having ingested a tainted supplement (whether that product was masquerading as a supplement or not)—can have the ring of truth.