Why Regulation Alone May Not Solve For Unsafe Supplements In The Supply Chain

Millions of people around the world take supplements every day in an attempt to be healthier or get nutrients missing from their diets. In fact, the supplement industry is thriving—it’s worth more than $50 billion in the U.S. alone.

Unfortunately, while some supplements and nutraceuticals (food used for medicinal purposes) may live up to the claims on its label, there are also plenty of false claims in the industry.

Unfortunately, while some supplements and nutraceuticals (food used for medicinal purposes) may live up to the claims on its label, there are also plenty of false claims in the industry.

Nutritional supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA in the same way pharmaceuticals or food are, which can lead to problems. You may remember the uproar when authorities in New York tested herbal supplements from GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—and found that 4 out of 5 products tested didn’t contain any of the herbs noted on their labels.

Even more startling, when the FDA recently analyzed supplements sold over-the-counter from 2007 through 2016, they found that nearly 800 of them contained unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients.

Many leeways exist that allow companies to put unsafe products on the market. That has to change, and while part of the solution may involve government regulation, there are other—potentially more effective—routes that can be taken.

Here’s why the supplements industry has to take control of their supply chain:

Consumers need to trust in the integrity of the ingredients.

The argument here is not: we need to prove supplements work. The argument is: we need to prove supplements are safe.

Incorrect labeling isn’t the only issue when it comes to safety. Many people are concerned about using herbal supplements for fear of exposure to herbicides like glyphosate. This chemical is often used on mass-produced plants, eventually making its way into the capsules people take every day.

Or consider fish oil—the word “fish” is almost comically general. If you asked consumers, they’d agree they want to know the type and quality of the fish the oil was derived from. Unfortunately, mislabeling and low-quality ingredients in fish oil supplements are widespread.

Without any action to monitor these nutraceuticals, there are simply too many opportunities for the integrity of the ingredients to be compromised or for the products to be intentionally sold in unintended markets.

The good news is, the industry seems to realize there are benefits to educating consumers and proving the authenticity of ingredients. The only question is how exactly to go about it.

Regulation can only do so much to change behavior.

Right now, there isn’t really any regulatory pressure on companies providing supplements.

Currently, the products are treated more like a consumer product than a pharmaceutical. They don’t go through several clinical trials in order to prove their efficacy. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 limits the FDA to only remove products from the market once there’s a problem, instead of thoroughly vetting products before they make it into consumers’ hands. In addition, any supplement ingredients marketed before 1994 don’t require FDA clearance before they’re marketed.

Essentially, this means manufacturers are responsible for the quality and integrity of the ingredients they use.

While legislation is certainly an option for quality control, it may not be the best one for cleaning up this industry. As a tool to change behavior, regulation has varying levels of effectiveness. At its best, it actually impacts how companies act by providing an incentive to create better products. At its worst, it just becomes another hoop for companies to jump through.

If consumers don’t want to wait for legislation that may or may not solve these problems, then everyone has to act. But the only way we can make smart decisions about our purchases—and incentivize manufacturers to clean up their act—is if we have trusted information to help us make the right choices.

Blockchain can verify a manufacturer’s marketing claims.

In the absence of regulation, consumers have to demand that products are safe.

One of the best available solutions we have is blockchain technology. Blockchain can help with track and trace efforts and certifications, so consumers can trust the ingredients used are legitimate and safe.

Blockchain solutions can provide the trusted evidence that herbal supplement ingredients came from pesticide-free fields, or that the products haven’t been diverted, sitting in a warehouse somewhere for years before being sold on an unauthorized online store.

If consumers have the knowledge and power available to them to buy products that are responsibly manufactured, they will. When that begins to happen, there will be a form of self-regulation where the ecosystem comes together around the belief that quality products can be manufactured and sold without government intervention.

Consumers can drive change in the supplements industry, and a voluntary approach feels more powerful than something that’s required by law because it shows that we have both producer and consumer adoption.

The nutraceutical industry doesn’t necessarily need regulation, but it definitely needs trust. For consumers’ sake, the industry needs to consider all the available options for tracking and verifying the products along the supply chain, choosing what will work best for the people putting these supplements in their bodies.


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