We were contacted to evaluate an organization known as Consumer Lab. They have been cited numerous times in mainstream news publications as experts in appraising nutritional supplements. They have a reputation for targeting specific companies aggressively. We normally embrace any group that is seeking higher standards and accountability concerning supplements and alternative medicine, but something seemed terribly amiss about Consumer Lab.
"Our Mission: To identify the best quality health and nutritional products through independent testing."
Consumer Lab claims to be working for the public; similar to Consumer Reports. It tests the concentration and purity of supplements, and it then reports its findings to paying customers. Individuals who want to know its results must subscribe to Consumer Lab for $30 a year, when we last checked pricing. In addition to getting money from the consumers, it also gets money from the supplement companies themselves. Companies pay them thousands of dollars for favorable product analysis and reviews. Recommendations from Consumer Lab have expiry dates, so manufacturers must pay again every 12 months, if they wish to continue using the certified "CL" seal. On one hand, companies are paying Consumer Lab for favorable reviews, while individuals are paying them for what they believe is objective reporting.
"Also try the vendors below, as each sells some of the products tested... We have not, however, tested nor approved all of the items that they carry, so check our Reviews. These vendors pay a fee to be listed below but we receive no revenue from purchases made. We have reviewed the advertisements for accuracy but do not review or endorse editorial information appearing on their websites. Click here for more information about advertising on ConsumerLab.com."
The above quote appeared on their official "Where To Buy" (supplements) web page. Those statements comprised a slip that revealed their financial double-dipping.
Marc Ullman, writing for Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine, previously reported how this is an extreme conflict of interest. It is virtually impossible to be a paid client of the industry, while providing an objective analysis; like the 3rd party watchdog that they pretend to be. So we decided to dig a little deeper into Consumer Lab.
Consumer Lab's C.E.O.
The president of Consumer Lab is Tod Cooperman, M.D. While in medical school, he spent a summer working at an investment bank in New York City, where he evaluated new health care companies. His first job following graduation from medical school was with Bristol-Myers-Squibb pharmaceuticals, where he remained from 1987 to 1993.
He then founded CareData Reports, which rated insurance plans and H.M.O.'s; purportedly based on customer feedback. The company continued to expand until it covered everything from pharmacy benefits to dental care. At which time he sold CareData to J.D. Power and Associates, and remained there as an employee until 1999. We found the company's explosive growth to be puzzling; considering that it profited solely by providing consumer reports. However, we have been unable to prove that CareData Reports profited from the same payola scheme that fuels Consumer Lab.
Consumer Lab's website claims that one of his first actions, when starting consumerlab.com, was to hire one of the "world's leading experts on dietary supplements", Dr. William Obermeyer. Dr. Obermeyer had been working as an upper-level Food and Drug Administration chemist for nine years before undertaking his business partnership with Cooperman. We investigated Obermeyer based upon speculations about why someone with a cushy, well-paid governmental job at the F.D.A., with likely no accountability whatsoever, would suddenly give up that secure position in favor of a risky job venture in a new business that had never been explored.
Dr. Obermeyer's work in the F.D.A. had been limited to investigating contamination in dietary supplements, and watching for unapproved claims from competing treatment methodologies. It is documented that Obermeyer complained that the F.D.A. did not have the necessary funds to persecute people who reported competing cancer treatments, whilst investigating supplement companies at the same time. Obermeyer's comments have led us to conclude that his resignation was prompted by the F.D.A. not being aggressive enough in suppressing information about successful alternatives, instead of concerns about sincere product safety.
The Agenda of Consumer Lab
Consumer Lab claims to have tested approximately 1,600 products, including making the rather ambitious claim that it has tested 95% of all supplements sold in the United States. Cooperman claims that one quarter of the products failed his company's testing, which is probably about the number of companies that categorically refused to pay for the "independent" testing or a U.S.P. certification. It reflects despicable business policies that could be called blackmail, and the uncertified companies are therefore more ethical because of their non-compliance. As an ex-employee of Bristol-Myers-Squibb, and someone who actively seeks F.D.A. advice on nutritional supplements, we have a fairly clear idea of Cooperman's agenda.
Cooperman's partner, Dr. Obermeyer, spent nine glorious years inside the F.D.A., seeking problems with dietary supplements, before continuing the same work at Consumer Lab. The very name of this company reminds us of The Center For Consumer Freedom, a P.R. front for Monsanto and "hundreds of companies that wish to remain anonymous". While such cute names are designed to be disarming; such organizations are usually paid by the very industry that they are supposed to be policing. In the case of Consumer Lab, they likewise appear to be team players.
"In a recent test of multivitamins, ConsumerLab.com found that Equate-Mature Multivitamin 50+ sold by Wal-Mart was just as good as the name brand Centrum Silver, but at less than a nickel a day is half the price."
-- New York Times (Dec. 4th, 2009)
The deception is their covert placing of Centrum Silver as the gold standard of supplements in the minds of readers, without them noticing this slight-of-hand trick. In our educated opinion, we believe that neither product is actually fit for human consumption, nor does either provide more benefit than harm in the long term. Both supplement companies likely paid a great deal of money to both the New York Times and to Consumer Lab for such 'objective reporting'. The vitamins that are recommended by Consumer Lab are known as U.S.P. vitamins. The "P" stands for pharmacopeia -- and the "pharma" part is not coincidental.
"What does Consumerlab.com charge to participate in its 'voluntary certification program'? One of the comments posted after my first letter noted that the fee charged for testing products containing Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM was $4,650.00 for the tests completed in the early summer 2009. Is this the standard fee that Consumerlab.com charges companies that wish to ensure that your test results are proprietary to the manufacturer?"
-- Marc Ullman
Marc Ullman is chair of the Legal Advisory Council for the Natural Products Foundation. He pinned-down Mr. Cooperman in a public discourse, whereby his questions became a little too uncomfortable for Mr. Cooperman to answer. The term "proprietary" means that the test results are owned by the manufacturer buying the study, so that all negative findings may be stricken from public disclosure. Any organization that truly serves the public and operates under scientific principles does not keep secrets about its results. Consumer Lab is the anti-thesis of principled scientific research.
There are times when being endorsed by a certain group is actually an indication of dishonor. This appears to be the case for Consumer Lab certified companies. We recommend avoiding all vitamins that have either the C.L. seal or a U.S.P. certification. The C.L. seal marks an approval by an organization that is run by those who, in the very least, have vested interests outside of what they fully disclose. While we generally have no disagreements with groups seeking to benefit the public by providing honest information about supplements, there are far too many coincidences for us to ignore here. The Food and Drug Administration is the last place that one should ever search for honest and accurate advice about herbs and supplements. It is very much like seeking advice from a drug dealer about how to break free from a drug addiction. Likewise, seeking advice from Consumer Lab appears to be just as irrational, since its owners have been heavily immersed in the pharmaceutical cartel for most of their careers, and even directly employed by the F.D.A. itself. They are part of a good-ole-boy network from a chemical industry that profits from sick care, but never healing. It is an industry that openly mocks supplementation and nutritional medicine.
A System Designed to Protect Itself from Threats
If the F.D.A. needed to put more resources into a particular area, surely it would be the area that is resulting in the most deaths. We never see emergency rooms filled with those who are experiencing horrendous vitamin B-12 reactions, or vitamin C overdoses. Instead, the majority of people are there for life-threatening reactions to properly prescribed drugs; so the F.D.A. should spend more time checking the safety of drugs that are already on the market. If they were as rigorous in enforcing recalls for pharmaceuticals as they are for dietary supplements, then medicine as we know it would cease to exist. Ephedra was banned by the F.D.A., after concentrated doses of the stimulant had been taken by people who were also using hypertension medications; resulting in roughly 200 deaths. Of course, it was the herb that was blamed. In contrast, Vioxx caused 27,000 deaths before it was voluntarily recalled. The voluntary recall means that the pharmaceutical manufacturer still has full F.D.A. approval to put Vioxx back onto the market at will. Be watchful for that to eventually happen under a new and more marketable drug name.