KANSAS CITY, MO. - Pick up a bottle of fish oil capsules and squint hard at the label.
Chances are it won’t say where the pills came from. But that’s something you should know.
A McClatchy Newspapers investigation calculates that fish oil imports from China, a country notorious for hazardous products, now account for roughly 20 percent of the U.S. market. And it’s a big market, because 1 in 5 American adults now takes fish oil.
The investigation also found that companies sidestep import labeling rules and that federal authorities let them.
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No big recalls or health scandals have been linked to Chinese fish oil. And a spokesman for the People’s Republic of China said his country’s fish oil was of good quality.
But consumer advocates, a leading trade group for the supplements industry, and legal experts who have examined labeling laws agree: Consumers ought to be able to tell, at a glance, whether their fish oil capsules are coming from China.
Leo Hepner, an international consultant on food and dietary supplement ingredients, said that if he knew some fish oil capsules were manufactured in China, “I would prefer to buy something else.”
And Sidney Wolfe, whose Public Citizen Health Research Group has advocated for consumer safety for decades, said, “People have a right to know.”
U.S. manufacturers also sometimes have trouble meeting quality standards, Wolfe said, but he pointed out that China has had serious problems, including with drug ingredients.
A few years ago, nearly all fish oil consumed in the United States was manufactured domestically, with some made in Europe – where rules or laws governing manufacturing are strict.
But U.S. fish oil use has soared, making it the No. 3 dietary supplement and a nearly $1 billion annual business. As sales increased, some U.S. companies started importing from Chinese facilities.
In its investigation, Mc-Clatchy Newspapers reviewed every fish oil shipment from China to the United States over 1ß years. They amounted to about one-fifth of the U.S. market in 2009 and continued to increase the first half of this year.
The largest importers were asked to comment for this report, but most refused. The one company that did respond said it had gotten out of its Chinese importing business this year.
The Tariff Act of 1930 requires that imported products, including fish oil, be clearly marked for their “ultimate purchaser” with the last country where the product underwent a “substantial transformation.”
Food and Drug Administration rules say supplement labels should include “a truthful representation of geographical origin.” And Federal Trade Commission rules say they can supplement the Tariff Act when it fails to require the disclosure of countries that process or manufacture products.
But enforcement of import labeling is left up to yet another agency, U.S. Customs and Border Control, which has been letting the importers get around the law. Those companies assert that simply bottling the capsules in the United States “transforms” them into a U.S. product, so they don’t have to be labeled as imports.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition, a leading supplements industry trade group, says the importers’ interpretation is ridiculous and that it wants Customs to start enforcing the law.
The Chinese factories that make fish oil capsules for export to the United States are supposed to meet FDA standards. But the FDA, according to several sources, has never inspected any Chinese dietary supplement plants. An FDA spokesman said he didn’t know whether the agency had inspected any Chinese factories.
Chinese companies also have shown little interest in having independent third parties inspect their plants or in joining industry groups dedicated to ensuring the quality of fish oil.
One such group is GOED – the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega 3s – co-founded by Robert Orr. His company, Ocean Nutrition Canada, has a solid reputation in the industry and is one of the largest refiners of fish oil in the world.
Orr said his group, which is open to companies around the world, would welcome Chinese firms.
“There’s not a single Chinese manufacturer in GOED,” he said. “You tell me why.”
Careful processing of fish oil is important to keep it from becoming rancid. Without proper refining, it can contain high levels of some nasty substances, such as PCBs and mercury.
In addition, lightly regulated plants introduce the possibility of products’ containing odd contaminants or additives that no one would think to test for.
For example, in 2008 a contaminated ingredient from China showed up in heparin, a blood-thinning medicine, that was linked to 149 deaths. The previous year, dogs and cats died after eating pet food made with wheat gluten from China that apparently contained melamine, a toxic compound.
As a result of China’s past troubles, the supplements industry is becoming concerned about a potential scandal involving fish oil – one that could jeopardize all sales of the product.
“This industry is playing with fire,” said Kenn Israel, vice president of marketing for Robinson Pharma, a supplements manufacturer in California. “It could kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.”
Fish oil sales in the United States have risen rapidly in recent years, from $35 million in 1995 to $359 million in 2005 and just under $1 billion last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication. They’re expected to approach $2 billion by 2014.