The dirty dozen – a look at twelve shady and nefarious industry practices to avoid

There’s a toast that I like to offer up at gatherings of friends and colleagues, and in many ways, it truly sums up how I feel about the industry in which I have the honor and pleasure to work in: we get to collaborate with great colleagues and friends, support wonderful causes and we get to do really good work. Some might say that we, on the inside, get to ‘build a better industry’, and that too, has been a ‘go to’ filter for me and for ITC, as we consider where to focus our energy and attention, what to be thankful for, and perhaps most importantly, what to be critical of.

When it comes to that criticism, both my business partner Scott Steinford and I have been quite vocal when we’ve seen questionable practices through the years. Other colleagues and peers have their own frustration ‘themes’ and while we’ve commiserated, we’ve really not grouped all those bad practices we’ve noted into one location. So here goes, and to those we’ve spoken to in the past, you might recognize your own peeve in the list below:


This nefarious practice has been documented for many years, and it’s one of those that seems to arise in every analytical generation. Yes, it does happen, and for those of you that don’t know what dry-labbing is, it’s a ‘lab’ that doesn’t really test products, just gives the results that sound plausible and that they think their clients want to hear. Beware any lab that doesn’t have a lab – check for fume hoods.

What price do you need?

You’d think the question alone would draw suspicion, but strangely enough, it’s the question many brands and manufacturers love to hear. Sure, manufacturing can be a low margin business, but would you let your children consume this?

This stuff again?

What happens to all those rejected raw materials returned to suppliers? They get destroyed right? Well, not so fast. Legitimately, just because an ingredient doesn’t make the spec for one manufacturer doesn’t mean it’s not GMP quality. It could still meet a less stringent or discerning specification and be perfectly fine. The real issue is with those products that are irreparably below any GMP specification due to contamination or poor quality. I grew up wearing my older cousins’ hand me downs, didn’t you? They were fine, right?

Magic bullet

Remember that product that was going to even wash your dishes? How many times have we had ingredients in our industry that were going to work for inflammation and blood sugar and cognition and weight loss and men’s health and cancer and……if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Ignorance is bliss

We’ve got a few areas of our industry that are, how shall we say, a bit more opaque than others. A couple of these are the contract manufacturing and contract testing operations. Companies don’t often disclose their partners doing this mission critical work for them, sometimes for very good proprietary reasons. From time to time though, the reasons aren’t so good. They may not even know what’s going on there themselves, after all, don’t ask, don’t tell.

Bait and switch

So, I’ve got this great new ingredient that I’ve developed, including patents and branding. I’ve done my own research on it, and have established the science to allow a series of claims requiring an efficacious amount of the ingredient. You buy my ingredient, but only to supply a quarter of what you need, topping it up from your local commodity distributor at a fraction of the cost. You think I can’t do the math?

What’s yours is mine

Closely related to the ‘bait and switch’ described above is the ‘art’ of using another company’s science. This occurs when a company, either in a disguised format, or overtly, borrows and applies the science and applies it to their own ingredient. Talking about the science in a category, implying that they’ve actually conducted said science is the way this often manifests. If all ingredients were equal and commodities, this may be a reasonable extrapolation, but in most cases, they are not, with different processes and extraction and formulation techniques. In many cases, there is defensible IP also at work – which should be fully defended. Still, doesn’t it bother you that one company pays while the other reaps the benefits?

Race to the bottom

Ours is a confusing marketplace. Shop online or step into a store and you easily get overwhelmed by the options in a category. In what other line of consumer products can you find product selling for 1x, 2x and 6x, with little to distinguish them? Sometimes, it seems as though we set out to deliberately confuse consumers, making it extremely difficult for them to choose effectively, leaving them no recourse to go for the cheapest price. Knock-off formulas, and I’m not only talking about house brands, are cheaply available from contract manufacturers, with short lead times – why not race to the bottom?

FDA Approved and other off the chart claims

Yes, that statement is still out there, along with too many logos and seals to count regarding FDA as well as GMPs. I would argue that this is an area that has been cleared up in recent years, except I don’t think I can. Unsubstantiated claims are still out there. Just because enforcement discretion is the ‘order’ of the day doesn’t mean the problem has ceased to exist.

The easy way out

If you mix ‘A’ plus ‘B’, formulate in some manner, stabilize, add excipients as needed, then prepare into your finished product format, and finally package, you know for sure you have the sum of ‘A’+’B’ in your final product right? And of course it will be there for the duration of time on shelf. Most products actually in the marketplace are not tested. Methods can be costly, formulations are problematic, matrices can interfere, and it’s not an absolute requirement – or is it?

A smattering of this and a dusting of that…

Health Canada talks about a ‘rationale’ behind product formulation in order to among other things, substantiate claims. Many brands in our industry go through meticulous product development steps to bring a product to market, including the above scientific rationale as well as anticipating potential ingredient interactivity and even synergy in formulation. For others though, if it sounds interesting, and if consumers are looking for it, well, adding a dusting can’t be bad can it?

Though shalt not adulterate

Any list of shady and nefarious practices would not be complete without the ‘A’ word. Seriously, this issue is important enough that the American Botanical Council runs a botanicals adulterants prevention program (BAPP) with numerous monographs for some of the most frequently adulterated botanical ingredients. Whether the issue is synthetics, non-efficacious plant parts, spiking with inactive oils or other compounds that just happen to give the right chromatographic results, some suppliers are exceedingly clever at fooling analyses, and many brands and manufacturers don’t know what to look for.

In conclusion (and I did decide to stop at twelve rather than a Baker’s Dozen and go one more), we still have too few barriers to entry into this marketplace. We know there is inadequate enforcement, there are too many unscrupulous actors, and we are too quick to decry those outside the room as the culprits. We also operate in an environment where some institutions are a tad compromised. I know it’s easy to be critical. It’s far tougher to find solutions, and I believe solutions start with acknowledging reality, not hiding from it. We need to highlight those doing things right and call out the bad players and self-regulate or we won’t have an industry.