business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB reported that a lawsuit filed in a California court maintains that some fish oil capsules sold as health supplements for their Omega-3 fatty acids content have illegally undisclosed and unnecessarily high levels of contamination with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds. The defendants include retailers CVS, General Nutrition Corp. (GNC), and Rite Aid.

Now, there is a response from Andrew Shao, senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN):

“Fish oil supplements are among the safest, most beneficial health products on the market. Today’s announcement of a lawsuit against companies manufacturing or selling popular products is just that—a lawsuit looking for media attention, not a public safety concern for consumers.

CRN believes the suit was filed in California in order to take advantage of a state law, Prop 65, which has conservative standards that are not law in the rest of the nation. Further, the information disclosed during the press conference danced around the details, offering a lack of specificity to the general public about the levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds found in the fish oil products that were tested. Though the lawyers suggest that the levels of PCBs found in these products far exceed what is acceptable by Prop 65 standards, the actual levels of PCBs found in the majority of these products do not appear to exceed the Prop 65 limit (90 ng/day). Furthermore, they fail to mention that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) tolerance level for PCBs in fish (2,000 parts per billion) far exceeds the levels of PCBs found in fish oil.

It is important to put this into context. PCBs are ubiquitous within the environment, which means that all fish—whether fish found in oceans and rivers or fish oil supplements—contain at least trace amounts of PCBs. In fact, conventional food forms of fish contain higher levels of PCBs than fish oil supplements in part because supplement fish oil products go through a refining process which reduces PCBs and other contaminants. The FDA has established a tolerance level for PCBs in fish, which is 2.0 parts per million (ppm, also expressed as mg/kg) or 2,000 parts per billion; in comparison, the Prop 65 daily limit for PCBs for a cancer warning is 90 ng/day, which is significantly lower than what FDA deems safe. The lawyers are using California’s Prop 65 statute to bring attention to their case by attempting to frame this as a public health concern, when in reality, fish oil has enjoyed decades of safe use.

The bottom line is that consumers, whether they live in California or elsewhere, should continue to feel confident in the safety and efficacy of their fish oil supplements. This lawsuit does nothing to change the strong science supporting the many health benefits of fish oil, which range from cardiovascular health to cognitive development of infants and young children, and the very low thresholds of PCBs which apparently trigger a labeling requirement in California cannot be extrapolated to demonstrate any actual risks at those levels. The health benefits for fish oil far outweigh any suggested, and unsupported, risks.”
KC's View:
Well, I certainly feel better about all the seafood I’ve been consuming over the past 10 days...

It seems worth sharing an email I got yesterday from MNB user Matt Weeks about this issue:

My 9 year-old heard the radio coverage of this yesterday, and was upset. We take similar products, and her primary cause of concern is *also* that she feeds a similar product to our 2 year old Golden Retriever.  Clearly she thinks it may be "too late" for us but not for the dog.  Now at least I know where I stand in the hierarchy.

Please follow this story, and help us sort the smoke from the fire.  We buy products like this from trusted brands, some of which are house brands from trusted retailers.  This is a story that all consumers need to understand.  If our "trusted" are putting due diligence in their buying practices above our health, we must hold them accountable, all the way up to the executive suite, including sanctions for executives if appropriate.  There is no amount of profit that allows convenient ignorance of quality and safety.

If indeed these products are determined to be full of dangerous contaminants, perhaps we should insist the executives of the retailers in question force-feed said products to their children and grandchildren.  I suspect that would get their attention.  At least via their spouses, if not the appropriate regulatory agencies.  Remember it takes a village.

(I know of no better way to force a recalcitrant executive into good behavior than to engage them through the ire of their spouse...)

It seems to me that this is illustrative of the broader problem - not just in the fish oil story, but also in the earlier story about good labeling. This is about Matt’s nine-year-old daughter growing up in an environment where she may not feel a high level of confidence about the products she buys and the claims they make.

That’s bad news for an industry that depends on its credibility for sustainable success.