Why Does ConsumerLab Refuse to Answer Our Questions?

April 14, 2015

Alternative Medicine.We asked them about their dubious business practices, but we have received nothing but stony silence in return. Help us learn what they may be hiding—Action Alert!

Over the last few years, we’ve raised questions about the business practices of ConsumerLab.com, an organization that purports to help consumers identify the highest quality dietary supplements.
As we’ve reported before, our sources tell us that ConsumerLab.com (CL) approaches dietary supplement makers and asks them to enroll in its “voluntary” testing program—for a fee. CL doesn’t publicly disclose its fee schedule, but we were told that one company was charged over $4,000 to test a single product. We also understand that companies that pay the fee are guaranteed that if one of their products passes the testing under their Voluntary Certification Program, it gets listed on the site and may carry the CL Seal of Approval—and if it fails the testing, the product will not be identified publicly because the results are “proprietary to the manufacturer”!
Companies that do not agree to pay for the voluntary certification program risk having their products tested anyway through the firm’s “product review program.” If they fail the test, those failures will be publicized on CL’s website and in the media, with complete details for sale in CL’s Product Review Technical Reports. This arrangement sounds to us like, “Pay up, and you won’t have to worry about the results. Don’t pay up, and you may be exposed to bad publicity.”
Unfortunately, our efforts to verify all the facts and get an explanation have not been answered. We sent the following letter to CL a year ago, asking them to address some of these issues:

We represent Alliance for Natural Health USA (“ANH-USA”), which questions, inter alia, the validity of using the amount of time it takes for a product to disintegrate in water as a measure of quality when the stomach does not use water to digest products. ANH-USA is concerned that CL employs questionable methods to evaluate products and is acting out of financial self-interest while proclaiming that its “mission is to help consumer and health professionals identify high quality products” [emphasis in original].
A responsible public interest organization dedicated to ensuring quality in the market should have no problem accounting for its methods. On behalf of ANH-USA, we therefore pose the following questions to you:
1. Is it true that if a company does not pay to have a product tested through CL’s Quality Certification Program, it risks having that product tested through CL’s Product Reviews? And, is it true that if a product fails a Product Review, its failure will be publicized in CL’s member reports?
2. Is it true that if a company pays to have a product tested through CL’s Quality Certification Program and its product fails, those results will be hidden from CL’s member reports on the grounds that those tests are “proprietary to the manufacturer”?
3. How does withholding information from the public about failing products “help consumers and professionals identify high quality products”?
4. What selection criteria do you employ to choose a product for a Product Review? Please also explain in detail how you use survey results to select products. If some products are chosen at random, please explain the randomization process.
5. Prior to finalizing the list of products that you will test under a Product Review, do you notify companies that their products are under consideration for inclusion, and, if so, do you provide them an opportunity to have their products tested through CL’s Quality Certification Program instead?
6. How does the price for product testing through CL’s Quality Certification Program compare to the price of product testing through a third-party laboratory that does not release Product Reviews to paying members? Is it higher?
7. On CL’s website, www.consumerlab.com, you acknowledge that “[t]he FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (‘GMPs’) for dietary supplements allow each manufacturer to determine the quality standards and analytical methods it uses to evaluate the quality of its products.” Nevertheless, you claim that even if a product complies with GMPs, it can still be of low quality. For example, you state that “[s]ome choose to use less specific standards and/or lenient test methods that can make a low quality product appear to be high quality.”
You further claim that your standards are better, stating: “We adopt the most meaningful and strict standards based on the latest international research and recommendations.” What evidence can you provide to demonstrate that your quality criteria/standards and tests are generally accepted in the scientific community as sufficient to determine definitively a product’s quality?
Further, what evidence can you provide that your tests are appropriate for each product that you evaluate, and how do you, or the laboratories that you use, account for confounding factors, if at all, such as ingredients that either mask or magnify test results?
8. Which laboratories do you use to test products and what evidence do you possess that their testing methods and results are competent, reliable, and reproducible?
We look forward to receiving your prompt response within 30 days after the date of this letter. ANH-USA intends to publish a copy of this letter within the next several months along with any response you send.

ConsumerLab has yet to respond to these concerns.
Action Alert! Write to your state’s attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and ask them to investigate the business practices of ConsumerLab.com. Please send your message immediately!

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35 responses to “Why Does ConsumerLab Refuse to Answer Our Questions?”

  1. Jan Lindner says:

    This sounds like extortion or some kind of protection racket – NOT a legitimate testing site.

  2. Bob R says:

    Interesting,I’ve written to your organization asking who you are funded by & you didn’t reply to me either. Given there has been proven fraud in the supplement industry , I can only assume you take money from manufacturers & are not likely to criticize them. The bad apples ruin the bunch, & you do nothing to help that situation.

  3. jjv104 says:

    I disagree with your position on CL’s business model. I’ve been a member for several years and found most of the information informative. The annual fee is reasonable. I am not aware of a similar site. Consumers Union (Consumers Reports) does not provide this information.
    Someone has to pay for the service. Asking manufactures to pay a fee and only publish the positive information is reasonable as long as the testing is unbiased. This is a far better system than what drug companies do. I suspect if they could afford to do the testing after purchasing the products directly they would. They probably don’t have the membership numbers to afford this.

  4. vern says:

    okay so consumer labs not reliable so where do we get good information from on quality and clean products thank you

  5. Peter Scripture says:

    Comsumerlab has always been a scam! If yyou pay them they will recommend your product, even if it is crap!

    • Susan Newman says:

      @ Peter Scripture: I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. ConsumerLab doesn’t recommend any products; it only tests for, and publishes the results about, certain things: 1) does the supplement contain the amount of the relevant substance that the manufacturer claims it does; 2) does the supplement contain any major contaminants like lead; and 3) does it break down in a reasonable amount of time (which it would need to do to be effective in the body). It also provides a price comparison so that the consumer can easily see how much he/she is paying for a dose of B12 ($x per mg, e.g.) They don’t recommend a particular amount of any supplement; that’s for you, the consumer, and your health advisor to do. The manufacturers who pay them essentially get an independent testing service — if the product falls short, CL tells the manufacturer, who can then improve the product and re-submit. They don’t publish as approved any products of the partner companies until they pass the tests. It’s true, therefore, that the consumer can’t know that a partner company has produced something that’s sub-par, but if one sticks to products that pass the CL tests, it doesn’t matter.
      It’s also true that they do test products “off the shelf” from companies who aren’t partners and if they don’t pass the tests, they say so. But not all the supplements that pass the tests and are published come from partner companies, so they “approve” products from companies who aren’t paying them. That seems pretty fair and honest to me. And as someone else says, product testing and communication with the public cost money; those services have to be paid for somehow. CL uses a combination of consumer membership and partnering as an independent lab with manufacturers for their revenue stream. If there is a better model, I’d like to know about it.

  6. BChristine says:

    I have questioned ConsumerLab myself. I purchased a membership a few years ago, but was disappointed they did not test higher quality supplements. When I brought this to their attention, I was basically blown off. I requested a refund of the membership fee. I still receive their emails and look at their answers to the questions that members send in (these are only partial answers and you have to join in order to read the full “report”). They are very often lame answers, and I have found sometimes the information can sometimes be inaccurate as well. Unlike EWG (Environmental Working Group) who offer critical information at no cost, I find CL questionable, so I have to say I am not surprised by this report by Alliance for Natural Health

  7. Cassie says:

    Ha! I used to subscribe to Consumer Lab. They have very thorough reporting. They do not approach companies to test products but they will test a company’s product if the company asks them to. They then purchase products off the shelf to test instead of taking samples directly. Nothing dubious about that. I trust CL a whole lot more than I would the FDA!!

  8. Charlene Kern says:

    I find it hard to trust a business that uses a practice of bullying supplement companies. I am surprised this practice isn’t illegal.

  9. Eric Milton says:

    I do not agree with your statement of a bad business practice by Consumer labs. They are the only one I trust to give me there honest opinion on drugs and supplements.
    Your attack on them is unwarranted you may not like their business model , so what ?
    I have used their service and found them useful. I did not always agree with them again so what ?
    They provide a very good service to the supplement industry that is independent and trustworthy unlike the FDA.
    I think you live in a tower somewhere and never had to make a payroll !

    • Neil_hyg says:

      Instead of relying on a private for-profit organization to look after your best wishes, what would you think about steps being taken so that the FDA becomes trustworthy (and independent, and pro-consumer, etc), so we don’t have to rely on a private organization?
      There are horror stories about the FDA going back to the start of their inception around the start of the 20th century, so I’m careful not to suggest “returning” them to their virtual state, because they never really were virtuous.
      There’s a lot of work to do.

  10. Elizabeth Hill-Merica says:

    Consumers have the right to know and why a product passed testing to verify its safety and
    effectiveness.

  11. george sigler says:

    Keep up the good work.

  12. Joyce says:

    Hmmmmm- kinda sounds like rumors of the new world order being on its last legs financially must be true and they have found a unique way to increase their wealth.

  13. louis broccoli says:

    PLEASE INVESTIGATE THE BUSINESS PRACTICES OF CONSUMERLAB.COM. I BELIEVE THEY ARE EVALUATING PRODUCTS OF SUPPLIERS WHO PAY A FEE TO HAVE THEIR PRODUCTS REVIEWED. THEY ARE NOT OBJECTIVE.

  14. Barbara Worner says:

    Thank you for this information. I purchased a membership at CL last year, after reading an article and trying to link to more specific information, found membership was require to see the results of the comparison. As an individual always seeking the best available information on health and nutrition, I feel duped. It is bad enough the agency charged with oversight of medicines for the populace cannot be trusted to do their jobs. There are fraudulent sources of information everywhere, whether deceptively, purposely, or erroneously I cannot say. It just makes it ever more important to know your sources of information are legitimate. Without answers to the questions in your letter to the lab, it is impossible to document what they say in their reports? If a manufacturer can get bad results hidden for payment? I am sorry, I cannot accept as truth anything that would come from an organization that would do such a thing! Who could?!

    • Neil_hyg says:

      Yes. The rationalization that CL is going to hide a failed product “so the manufacturer may have a chance to improve their processes” is bo-o-o-o-o-o-gus.
      Sorry if I’m repeating myself, thanks for reading all my ramblings, but if CL finds that a product fails testing, they should be shouting the results far and wide, not waiting for some Green to be handed over before they deliver the report to each consumer that might be interested.
      And if that seems harsh, then the manufacturers should be quality-checking their own products so they don’t get into that quandary.
      B. Wornor, you mention that you feel duped. Regarding your membership payment, why aren’t you satisfied with the value of the report(s) they copied to you? Is it their questionable marketing methods? Or was it the factual information that you were hoping would be in the reports but wasn’t?

  15. Graburn Lynne says:

    This appears to be another unscientific “scientific” scam. We absolutely need oversight in this field so that we don’t ingest “supplements” that have dubious quality i.e., nutritional value. We spend money without addressing the needs that our body may have. To me, that is unethical, immoral, and ought to be, illegal. I think we call that a shakedown!
    I don’t want this to be an endorsement of the Fed’s campaign, presumably fueled by drug makers, to require all supplements to undergo a testing process that is prohibitively expensive! If I thought for a moment it was for our benefit, I would endorse it, but it’s just an anticompetitive scam, in the name of government protection.

  16. sharon says:

    You “guys” are really good! Thank you so very much for all your hard work and tireless effort. I am thankful for ANH and support you completely.

    • Neil_hyg says:

      Agreed.
      Something didn’t seem right about Consumerlab. So I did a search for “consumerlab scam” and found the Alliance for Natural Health USA (ANH-USA) .
      Consumerlabs won’t share their information with me anyway, so I’m changing my bookmarks from consumerlabs to the Alliance.

  17. Julie Coleman says:

    Of course… this is how it works. The business “pays” for the seal. Corruption happens everywhere. Politicians buy votes. Businesses buy their way in, look at the cigarette company for one example. Well known popular research sources we use every day are often no more than paid advertisements. I won’t mention names, but we all know the seals we look for. Also the sources we Google. No one is watching, because likely they to are benefiting from the lies. It’s sad, but I know certain cases to be very true.

  18. Mike says:

    This sounds like racketeering. Perhaps the U.S. Attorney General should be notified!

  19. Stephen Kane says:

    Interestingly, the Consumers Association (Which? magazine) in the UK is very similar.
    Whenever they ‘investigate’ nutritional supplements or clinical nutritionists, they invariably publish negative views and quote ‘experts’ (e.g. a General Practitioner, a nurse or dietician) who pronounce on the purported ‘dangers’ of supplements or the ‘fact’ that they are a ‘waste of money.’
    I recall a hilarious article about the dangers of supplements that included a comment about potential ‘side-effects’ such as flushing from taking niacin . . . And another about how all (legitimate) experts agree that the government’s high carb ‘food pyramid’ is how everyone should be eating . . .
    Makes you wonder how accurate their purportedly objective views are about everything else they ‘investigate’ . . .

  20. Susan Newman says:

    You raise some interesting questions and I hope that ConsumerLab sees fit to answer at least some of them. However, I think you are somewhat misrepresenting the service that CL provides to subscribers and, possibly, those it provides to the companies who pay to receive their testing. I subscribe to ConsumerLab and feel that I benefit from both their monitoring and reporting of research on effectiveness of supplements in general, as well as the ability to at least rule out those supplements that 1) have less than the claimed amount of the beneficial substance, 2) contain lead or other contaminants, and 3) don’t break down in a reasonable amount of time (though I agree with your question about using water as the solvent rather than say acidulated water). I would add that that I think it’s FINE for CL to list those products that are randomly tested but don’t pass the review (what would be the point for the consumer otherwise?), but I have questions about the practice of not revealing the failed products of those companies who have joined CL’s testing program. It is my understanding that CL gives the companies the results of their testing so that the companies can improve the products before re-submitting for testing. In effect, CL becomes the external, independent testing laboratory for the companies with whom they form partnerships. I don’t see that this is a questionable business practice per se. There may be details that render it so. However, digging into their price structure and how it compares to the cost of testing elsewhere seems an inappropriate focus for ANH and a question I wouldn’t answer if I were the head of CL. I would add that even if it costs more, that could be easily justified as a form of scientifically informed advertising as positive results of testing reach supplement consumers. I would also note that neither the results of private product testing by companies nor the results from other 3rd party testing ever reach the consumer — it’s all proprietary. At least CL can offer consumers “stay away” warnings for some of the many products on the market, as well as options that meet the minimum requirements that CL tests for. While I don’t wish to see too many government restrictions on the production and use of supplements, I would personally welcome better circulation of independent assessment of supplement quality and effectiveness akin to labeling of GMO products. “Let the consumer decide” is a good principle as…

    • Susan Newman says:

      Unfortunately, about half of my comment was cut off as the website does not accurately track how many characters one has left as one writes. I recommend that ANH try to fix this and, in the meantime, that other folks type their comments into a Word or similar file and keep track of their characters that way. Then, if a comment exceeds the 2500 characters available, one can divide it into two or more entries.

      • Neil_hyg says:

        Not just “cut off,” but RUDELY cut off 🙂
        I don’t like it either when websites have that particular technical problem. Although my ramblings are usually not as well constructed as yours, I can easily go on for over 2500 characters, anyway.

    • Neil_hyg says:

      Hi S. Newman,
      Thoughtful, insightful. A valid, alternate take on their policies.
      You wrote:
      > I would personally welcome better circulation of independent assessment of supplement quality and effectiveness
      Considering the importance of their findings, I’m uncomfortable with their approximate $24/year requirement. If I were to find that a product has, at best, none of the expected active ingredient, or at worst — has unexpected hazardous ingredients, I would feel uncomfortable about sitting on my hands about my findings until the consumers gave me some money.
      I compare them with Consumer Reports. I occasionally see CR’s results published elsewhere, they don’t seem to be as retentive as CL. CR doesn’t sue libraries for stocking their magazine for everyone to see, but CL has a strict copyright notice at the bottom of their webpages.
      I guess, in summary, the “service” they perform should be a government function, except consumer interests are poorly funded at the FDA. So that little “power vacuum” gets filled by CL. At least if CL weren’t so obviously self-serving, it wouldn’t be so bad.
      Sorry for them, but I think this information should not have a pricetag. Plain and simple. If, as a private entity, they find that some product is fraudulent or dangerous, they should report it to the police or the FDA or send up smoke signals. They shouldn’t be saying, “Oooo, we found something, maybe, but you’ll have to pay us to find out…”

  21. Ahru Kedding says:

    I had been a subscriber to ConsumerLabs. I dropped my subscription because they would never answer my simple question, “What % of the time has each company you routinely rate failed your testing criteria.” For me I simply wanted to know if I should buy supplements from Vitamin Shoppe or Vitamin World or Puritan Pride, etc. Now I know why they never answered.

  22. Jennifer says:

    I’m glad to see this post. Something didn’t sit right with me about ConsumerLab and their results when I signed up for membership.

  23. Neil_hyg says:

    I didn’t pay. What did they want, $4 per month?
    They pose the right questions; they know what issues supplement users want answered. They do the testing to determine if any products are not providing the healthful advantage the customer expects. Some of their conclusions could have significant impact on millions of people if they find products that are nothing more than scams.
    But they won’t tell you what they found unless you pay. If they find a problem with a product but won’t tell you unless you pay, then they’re no consumer watchdog / advocate.
    It’s the tip of the iceberg of their own scam.
    Next, they’ll be going after folks that did pay and then repeated (leaked) consumerlab’s finding on their own websites.
    I guess they didn’t find Consumer Reports’ business model sufficiently profitable.

  24. keveen2 says:

    Yes it would be better if I could see more of the failed ones. But on the other hand, if I look at their list of tested products I can choose a product that contains the ingredients listed on the label and not junk. True other products might also be good but I am happy knowing I am buying an honest product. The other producers not listed should be providing their own quality guarantees but they don’t!

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