retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

At the urging of a friend of mine, I went back into the MNB archives to look at something that I'd forgotten about - the "Last Week Tonight" episode from June 24, 2014, in which John Oliver suggested that the daytime talk host Dr. Mehmet C. Oz - known best just as "Dr. Oz" - had fallen into a kind of quackery, using his celebrity to sell "magic beans" to an unsuspecting and gullible audience. (You can see the segment at left. It is devastatingly funny ... unless of course, you happen to be in the business of selling magic beans. Then, not so much.)

Those magic beans, as it happens, also go by another name - nutritional supplements. Yes, that's right, the supplements that were the subject of an investigation by the New York Times, and eventually, a probe by the New York State Attorney General's office. That probe led to the AG's office accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanding that they remove those products from their shelves. This demand - which not all of the retailers have decided at this point to comply with - then resulted in a torrent of articles, press releases and letters-to-the-editor, including yours truly, defending the supplement industry, suggesting the probe was a "self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health," accusing the AG's office of using faulty methodologies in its testing, and claiming that there is, despite suggestions to the contrary, an elaborate enforcement structure governing the supplement industry and plenty of authority for governmental agencies to act.

Clearly, not everybody agrees.

But then the friend who reminded me about the John Oliver episode told me something else. Not that long ago, he was present at a meeting of supplement manufacturers - mainstream, respected supplement manufacturers - and in an informal audience poll, the opinion overwhelmingly was that in roughly 50 percent of supplements, the ingredients inside the bottle did not match the ingredients listed on the label. Oddly, somehow this seemed acceptable to the people in the room. (Not to my friend, however.)

Yikes.

This isn't a new controversy, though it has been given fresh legs by the New York Attorney General. I don't know about you, but this is one case I'd like to see go to trial. A nice, big, public trial. I'd like to see the accused face the accusers, have people actually put under oath and required to tell the truth under penalty of a perjury conviction. I'd like to see methodologies compared.

In other words, I'd like to know who is telling truth. Because here's the deal: Somebody is lying. Either these products have the ingredients the labels say they have, or they don't. This doesn't seem all that tough to me.

Let's also be clear about something. I'm not sure anyone has said that all nutritional supplements are useless and/or mislabeled. Just a percentage. (Like maybe 50 percent?) Albeit a sizable enough percentage requiring regulatory attention.

(There's an interesting intellectual exercise for you. How "sizable" is "sizable enough" to create regulatory interest and consumer outrage? What's the number? Five percent? Ten percent? Two percent? Just curious...)

(By the way, a tangential thought has just occurred to me. This debate about supplement efficacy and labeling accuracy is taking place at the same time as a debate - and I can hardly believe I am writing these words - about the efficacy of vaccinations. I'm just wondering ... what might be the overlap between the population that believes in and trusts in supplements, and the populations that does not believe in vaccinations. I'm just curious. As I said, an odd, tangential thought. But mine own.)

Oh, yes. One other thing. I'd like to see all this done in an arena where lobbyists have absolutely no persuasive powers. (Which means they don't get to write checks to politicians and political action committees to get what they want. BTW...if roasting Dr. Oz isn't enough of an attraction to watch the John Oliver piece, take a look at how he goes after two US Senators. A thing of beauty, it is.)

I said yesterday in this space that I'm willing to wait for the results of the debate to reach any final conclusion. Which I suppose is just another way of saying that I suspect the NY AG is pretty much on target, but I'm perfectly willing to admit if I'm wrong.

And, if I may, a final thought. I'm really, really glad that John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," returns to HBO on Sunday at 11 pm. Because I've missed it.

KC's View: