One in five American adults takes fish oil… and according to The Kansas City Star, fish oil from China now constitutes about one-fifth (20 percent) of the U.S. market.
The Star also found widespread evasion of import labeling rules and virtually no federal enforcement.
The Star quoted consumer advocates and legal experts who say that shoppers should be able to tell at a glance whether their fish oil capsules are coming from China.
As Sidney Wolfe, M.D., of the Public Citizen Health Research Group pointed out, Chinese manufacturers have had serious quality and purity problems, including safety issues with drug ingredients.
Two years ago, contaminants in heparin—a common blood-thinning drug—imported from China were linked to 149 deaths.
And in 2007, American dogs and cats died after eating pet food made with Chinese gluten containing melamine, a nitrogen-rich industrial chemical added to give the false appearance of a higher level of protein.
Careful processing is essential to keep fish oil from becoming oxidized and unhealthful… and standard, commodity fish oils are often made from various fish oils of mixed quality, so they must be chemically refined to remove any contaminants.
In addition, the Chinese government’s lax oversight raises the possibility that the country’s fish oil could contain unusual contaminants or additives that are not normally tested for in the U.S.
Most of the fish oil sold in the United States comes from Peru or Chile, where anchovies and sardines are caught and cooked, and the oil is separated out. (Some also comes from equally small forage fish called menhaden, caught off the mid-Atlantic U.S. coast.)
The oil then is sent to refiners in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and China, who use chemical processes to remove or reduce contaminants and “deodorize” the oil at high temperatures.
In contrast, Vital Choice Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Oil does not need to undergo chemical refining, and is tested by NSF to ensure its purity and potency.
Demand and price wars lead U.S. brands to buy from China
Until recently, almost all fish oil sold in the United States was manufactured here, with the remainder made in Europe, where rules or laws governing manufacturing are even stricter.
But annual U.S. fish oil sales have soared to nearly $1 billion, and as sales increased beyond capacity and price wars began, some U.S. companies started importing from Chinese facilities.
The Star reviewed every fish oil shipment from China to the United States over 18 months and found that they amounted to about one-fifth of the U.S. market in 2009 and continued to increase during the first half of 2010.
According to the Star, the largest importers—including Wal-Mart and Costco—refused to comment for their report.
But a company that specializes in supplement trade data told the Star that in 2009, the New York company that supplies Wal-Mart with fish oil (called NBTY) more than doubled its fish oil imports from China
Purity of Chinese fish oil in question
NSF—the renowned standards and testing organization that certifies the purity and potency of Vital Choice Wild Salmon Oil—and the Natural Products Association performed audits of the handful of Chinese companies that have agreed to participate.
As Ed Wyszumiala of NSF told the Star, “There are very, very good ones, and there are very, very bad ones.”
U.S. law says that imported products must be clearly marked for their “ultimate purchaser” with the last country where the product underwent a “substantial transformation.”
Food & Drug Administration (FDA) rules say supplement labels should include “a truthful representation of geographical origin.”
But as the Star reports, “…enforcement of import labeling is left up to U.S. Customs, which has been letting companies assert that simply bottling the capsules in the United States ‘transforms’ them into a U.S. product” (TKCS 2010).
- Everly S. Labels for some fish oil capsules leave countries of origin in doubt. The Kansas City Star (TKCS). Sat, Oct. 09, 2010. Accessed at http://www.kansascity.com/2010/10/09/2294588/labels-for-some-fish-oil-capsules.html