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Justice Department Announces Criminal Charges Against Dietary Supplement Firms

The Department of Justice announced it is bringing civil and criminal charges against some makers and marketers of dietary supplements. According to a statement, the DOJ alleges that the companies sold supplements that either contained unlisted ingredients or make health claims that are inadequately supported by scientific evidence.

"The Justice Department and its federal partners have joined forces to [bring] to justice companies and individuals who profit from products that threaten consumer health," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer in the statement.

One company facing criminal charges is USPlabs LLC, which is known for its workout and weight loss supplements such as Jack3d and OxyElite Pro. Several of the company's executives are also facing criminal charges.

"The USPlabs case and others brought as part of this sweep illustrate alarming practices the department found — practices that must be brought to the public's attention so consumers know the serious health risks of untested products," Mizer said.

NPR has previously reported on banned drugs turning up in weight loss supplements.

Last year, Allison Aubrey reported that even after some supplements had been recalled for containing prohibited ingredients, the offending dietary supplements were still on the market:

"Researchers from the Cambridge Health Alliance, a health care network affiliated with Harvard University, got a list of 274 dietary supplements that the FDA recalled between 2009 and 2012.

"Then, they analyzed 27 products (including supplements marketed for weight loss, sexual enhancement and sports performance enhancement) that were still being sold months after being recalled. They found that two-thirds of the products still contained banned ingredients.

" 'I was so disheartened to see that manufacturers would have the chutzpah to sell the exact same product' even after it had been recalled, says Harvard's Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Cambridge Health Alliance researcher and internist. His findings are published in the current issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association."

And in October, Rob Stein reported on the tens of thousands of Americans who are treated in emergency rooms every year for problems caused by dietary supplements.

"The complications include heart problems such as irregular or rapid heartbeat or chest pain, says Dr. Andrew Geller of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who led the study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Two other big problems are children ingesting supplements purchased by an adult, or older people choking on pills, he says. Nearly three-fourths (71.8 percent) of the ER visits were related to the use of weight loss or energy-boosting supplements.

"The analysis, based on data collected between 2004 and 2013, is the first national estimate of complications that result from using dietary supplements, Geller says.

"Using data from 63 emergency rooms, he and his colleagues calculated that 23,005 emergency room visits occur each year because of dietary supplements. Among those cases, 2,154 patients are hospitalized to receive further treatment.

"The analysis did not include anyone who might have died on the way to the hospital or in the ER because those deaths are not recorded in the database used for the study."

Correction Nov. 18, 2015

A previous version of this story reversed the dates for references to two other NPR stories. Allison Aubrey's piece ran in 2014, not last month. And Rob Stein's story was published last month, not in 2014.

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