Feds arrest dietary supplement makers for fraud

In the largely unregulated world of dietary supplements, it's like the Wild West. Dramatic claims abound, most of them unsupported by evidence, and it's hard to know if any of them can be trusted. Supplement manufacturers claim their products cure cancer, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, and more. They promise miraculous weight loss results, nebulous "boosting" of your immune system, and anti-aging benefits.

Once in a while, though, they get caught. This week the U.S. cracked down hard on several of the more egregious offenders, announcing indictments against half a dozen supplement makers, including criminal charges against one.

It's about time. Consumers everywhere should applaud these actions and encourage more. Here's what happened.

On Tuesday, November 17, the U.S. Justice Department indicted USPlabs, a major supplement manufacturer whose products include Jack3d and OxyElite Pro. The Justice Department alleged that USPlabs "doctored packaging, labeling, and other paperwork to defraud others about what the product was." Further, the indictment points out that USPlabs claims that their products are made from natural plant extracts, when instead, as one USPlabs defendant put it:
"lol stuff is completely 100% synthetic."
The fraud runs even deeper: according to the Justice Department, after an outbreak of liver injuries associated with OxyElite Pro, in which some consumers needed liver transplants to save their lives,
"they [USPlabs] promised the FDA and the public that they would stop distributing the product at issue. They didn’t. Instead, they undertook a surreptitious, all-hands-on-deck effort to sell as much of the product as they could."
The criminal indictment, which led to the arrest of six USP employees and consultants, is just one of a sweeping set of actions over the past week. The Justice Department also filed six civil cases against other supplement makers for illegally claiming their products could cure diseases. The allegations include:

  • Clifford Woods LLC illegally sold Taheebo Life Tea, Germanium, and Organic Sulfur as treatments for Alzheimer's and cancer.
  • Optimum Health (aka Lehan Enterprises) illegally sold a product called DMSO cream for arthritis and cancer.
  • Regenica Worldwide (aka Vivaceuticals) illegally sell their RegeneSlim as a disease cure, and in addition RegeneSlim contains DMAA, an unsafe food additive under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but does not declare DMAA as an ingredient.

Just to be clear: none of these violations have yet been proven in court. But to be even more clear: none of these products treat or cure cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis, or any other disease.

In addition to the DOJ actions, the Federal Trade Commission indicted three more supplement manufacturers for illegal advertising claims (that's the FTC's purview). One indictment, against Chrystal Ewing and her two companies, Health Nutrition Products LLC and Classic Productions LLC, alleged that:
"In ads for W8-B-Gone, CITRI-SLIM 4 and Quick & Easy diet pills, the defendants featured bogus weight-loss experts. Citing fake scientific studies, the defendants also deceptively claimed to have clinical proof that consumers would experience a 'RAPID FAT meltdown diet program' that lets them shed five pounds in four days with one pill, or up to 20 pounds in 16 days with four pills."
Needless to say, none of those products deliver the results they claim.

It's a jungle out there. As the FTC's Jessica Rich said, "People looking for a dietary supplement to improve their health have to wade through a swamp of misleading ads. Be skeptical of ads for supplements that claim to cure diseases, reverse the signs of aging or cause weight loss without diet or exercise.”

It appears that major supplement retailers such as GNC have dropped USPlabs like a hot potato: I couldn't find OxyElite Pro on any of their sites. However, despite the indictments and arrests, USPlabs is still marketing OxyElite Pro on their own site, where they tout it as the "#1 Selling Fat Burner", with a long list of other claims. What about the liver toxicity cited by the Justice Department? The OxyElite website claims:
"OxyELITE Pro shows no side effects in well over 99% of its users. In fact, USPLabs and GNC have stated that there’s been over a billion servings of Jack3d and Oxy ELITE Pro safely taken with no problems!"
The FDA apparently disagrees: in March of this year, they issued a Medication Health Fraud notice that OxyElite Pro contains a hidden drug ingredient, fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), used for treating depression and other conditions. According to the FDA,
"SSRIs have been associated with serious side effects including suicidal thinking, abnormal bleeding, and seizures. In patients on other medications for common conditions (aspirin, ibuprofen, or other drugs for depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, blood clots, chemotherapy, heart conditions, and psychosis), ventricular arrhythmia or sudden death can occur."
Caveat emptor: these supplements might contain harmful ingredients. There's only one safe way to take supplements: ask your physician. Unless your doctor specifically recommends one, stay away. You'll feel better and your wallet will benefit too.

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