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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In Your Health today, summer tips for barbecuing and the beach. But first, we are going to give you the story of a private company that's trying to find out what is really in the top-selling food supplements. It's the brainchild of a former food and drug administration scientist, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Bill Obermeyer has a Ph.D. in something called pharmacognacy, a fancy term that means he knows a whole lot about plants and herbs, from the most exotic to the ones that grow as weeds in his own backyard.

Mr. BILL OBERMEYER (Vice President, ConsumerLabs.com): Here we're going to take a look at plantago major. It just grows on the lawn.

AUBREY: Obermeyer plucks the leafy plantain and points to its most distinguishing feature.

Mr. OBERMEYER: The plantain actually has these hairs.

AUBREY: Hairs so fine, they're hard to see. This botanical hunt in Obermeyer's yard is not just for kicks. The point is that one historic misidentification of the plantain, this harmless backyard weed, was the inspiration for the company he helped create, Consumerlab.com.

Back in 1997, when Obermeyer was working for the FDA, he investigated a case where a woman was hospitalized after using a cleansing product said to have plantain in it. When his team looked at the plants being used in the product, they expected to spot those little hairs.

Mr. OBERMEYER: But we didn't find any.

AUBREY: What they did find is that the manufacturer had swapped the harmless plantain with a toxic herb called Digitalis that can cause nausea, dizziness, and even heart attacks.

Mr. OBERMEYER: The substitution had been happening for several years. And we had several tons of material that had been adulterated going through the U.S.

AUBREY: Nobody picked up on it earlier, because nobody was testing the products. The FDA doesn't test supplements until illnesses are reported, and manufacturers aren't required to either. So Obermeyer left the FDA and teamed up with a medical doctor who had a business plan for independent testing.

Mr. OBERMEYER: We wanted to identify the materials correctly up front versus after the fact.

AUBREY: After people had gotten sick. Seven years later, Consumerlab.com have tested a few thousand supplement products and found about a quarter of them failed to make the grade. The results are available to subscribers who pay an annual fee and some information is free, such as alerts on product recalls.

The testing is ongoing. This week, for instance, Obermeyer started a review of Valerian supplements, which are sold as sleep aids. On a counter in his lab, he's lined up 13 different brands.

Mr. OBERMEYER: There's a lot of products and they all look very, very similar, so which is the best?

AUBREY: To determine this, Obermeyer and a lab assistant take 20 capsules from each bottle and use a mortar and pestle to grind a sample of each brand. As they work the room starts to stink.

Mr. OBERMEYER: Unfortunately, it smells like dirty socks.

AUBREY: One sign that the product really does contain Valerian. To confirm this, Obermeyer hires a high a tech lab to measure precisely how much is present and the quality. Another concern with herbals is possible heavy metal contamination.

Mr. OBERMEYER: So we'll be sending this to an EPA registered lab, looking for lead and cadmium contamination.

AUBREY: The final test will determine whether each product dissolves properly. The whole process will take about four months. And to make sure they've got it right, tests are repeated if contamination or bad ingredients are found. Consumerlab.com has run into some criticism along the way. One concern is that the company also offers a service to supplement manufacturers who can pay to certify their products. There are no indications that this has created any bias; and UC San Francisco Professor Steve Bent, who studies supplements, says as long as ConsumerLab remains open about its relationships with manufacturers, people should be able to trust their tests.

Dr. STEVE BENT (Professor at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, UC San Francisco): Since there isn't an FDA or governmental service that's policing or testing these remedies, I think it's important to have independent companies doing this.

AUBREY: ConsumerLab isn't alone in testing supplements. Another logo beginning to appear on labels is a blue NSF mark, which signals a product has been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, an origination best known for certifying product such as food machinery and bottled water.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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