The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), Washington, D.C., sent a petition to the FTC in mid-January asking them to investigate the alleged deceptive business practices of ConsumerLab.com, White Plains, NY. The CRN complaint stated that ConsumerLab.com—which represents itself as a consumer watchdog testing dietary supplements—is in reality a for-profit company that solicits money from the makers of products it plans to have tested. Specifically, CRN claims those companies that pay have positive results highlighted and negative results quashed, while those companies that don’t pay have negative results highlighted and positive results obscured. “Until now, nobody has looked behind the curtain and exposed ConsumerLab.com’s tactics,” said CRN president Annette Dickinson, PhD. “It is a business, not a watchdog—one that intimidates manufacturers to pay for its services. We ask the FTC to lift the veil this company uses to disguise its true nature.”
Further, CRN said, “Contrary to the image it projects of an actual testing facility, ConsumerLab.com is essentially a three-person operation, and its business address is a UPS drop box in White Plains, N.Y. It farms out product testing, but does not make public the identities of the laboratories it uses.” Here is how it works, according to CRN: ConsumerLab.com approaches dietary supplement makers requesting that they enroll in its “voluntary” testing program—for a fee. Those that pay are guaranteed that products failing the subsequent testing will not be identified publicly. Companies that do not pay risk having their products tested anyway and, if they fail, being publicized on ConsumerLab.com’s website and in the media. CRN is asking the FTC to make ConsumerLab.com: 1) make public all future test results regardless of whether companies have paid money to ConsumerLab.com; 2) release testing criteria and methodologies in advance; 3) identify the contract laboratories that actually do its testing; and 4) change its name to one that does not falsely imply that it does its own testing.
In response, ConsumerLab.com president Tod Cooperman issued a statement denying the allegations set forth by CRN, at the same time making some allegations of his own. “ConsumerLab.com has been at the forefront of exposing problems in the supplement industry and helping consumers identify better quality products,” Mr. Cooperman stated. “We have earned the respect of consumers and health professionals not by deception but with rigorous science and transparency.” He went on to say that CRN’s request was full of mistruths and misinformation. “This tactic of ‘shooting the messenger’ by casting doubt on our research or attempting to undermine our credibility has been tried in the past by some members of your industry,” he said.
Countering CRN’s claim that ConsumerLab.com requires supplement manufacturers to pay a fee “to avoid unfavorable publicity for negative test results,” Mr. Cooperman said, “We publish our findings for all the products that we choose to test, whether they pass or fail. These reviews are conducted at ConsumerLab.com’s sole cost and expense,” he said, adding, “We also publish the names of products that pass our voluntary certification program, [and] products are clearly marked as having participated in that program.” Responding to the allegation of using outside laboratories, Mr. Cooperman offered, “We use outside, expert laboratories for good reason. First, we are involved in a wide range of testing and strive to use the most advanced, reliable and accurate methods. This is best achieved by using outside experts.” He continued, “Using outside laboratories, we are also able to blind the product identities whenever possible to avoid potential bias by the researchers. [Lastly], before we publish a failing test result, our protocol requires us to confirm the results in a second independent laboratory.” He said the reason that ConsumerLab.com does not publicly disclose the names of the labs is because he claims members of industry have threatened several with loss of business.
Despite these recent issues, ConsumerLab.com continues to grow. In fact, it most recently extended its testing services overseas to Japan. In mid-December last year it announced that it would begin testing products sold in the Japanese market, with a report promised by April. Throughout 2005 ConsumerLab.com will purchase and test scores of supplements, including CoQ10, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, multivitamins and probiotics—over 30 categories will be analyzed on an ongoing basis.