GNC, America’s largest supplement retailer, has just been hammered with a $2.25 million fine in a settlement with the Department of Justice. The lawsuit is part of a larger governmental campaign to punish the supplement industry for selling products with unlabeled, health-damaging ingredients.
GNC has also promised to more strictly monitor the products it offers. Supplements are notorious for their loose or completely non-existent regulation, and for containing compounds that are actively toxic.
At no point during the lawsuit has GNC actually admitted to knowingly selling products with harmful ingredients in them. But their compliance with the fine appears to be a tacit admission of guilt. And the DoJ has hung their sword over GNC’s neck, threatening to prosecute if they fail to live up to their self-regulatory obligations.
In a public statement, the Department of Justice said, “A lengthy investigation conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas and the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division revealed that GNC’s practices related to ensuring the legality of products on its shelves were lacking. GNC engaged in acts and omissions that allowed a misbranded supplement — OxyElite Pro Advanced Formula, a product of Dallas-based USPlabs LLC (USP Labs) — to be sold at GNC locations nationwide in 2013.”
According to the DoJ, GNC was unaware of the toxic ingredients but also made no effort to examine the products for harmful compounds.
Benjamin Mizer, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said of the case: “Companies like GNC need to do more to ensure that they are not selling products containing questionable and untested ingredients.”
The DoJ says, “GNC will maintain and continuously update a list of ingredients that will be prohibited from inclusion in any products that are sold by GNC.”
And apparently, GNC is now also obligated to spend $500,000 training the farmers who produce the herbal and botanical products sold in their stores.
The supplement industry, worth many billions, has been able to operate almost entirely outside of the regulatory purview of the FDA thanks to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Since then, supplements have regularly been pulled off the shelves due to egregious breaches of health and safety. For example, a majority of lower-end protein powders are known to contain heavy metals.
It’s not a fringe issue, either. A huge percentage of Americans regularly consume some form of supplement, most popularly multivitamins. In fact, it is likely a majority of Americans who are exposed to these potential risks. It begs the question: are the hotly-contested alleged benefits of supplementation worth the hazards associated with the industry?