Two men from New Jersey and an environmental justice foundation in California have filed suit in San Francisco under Proposition 65 against six manufacturers (including GNC) and two retailers (CVS and Rite Aid) for selling fish oil supplements that they claim contain levels of carcinogens that exceed allowable levels. The press release from the publicist states that their aim is to "force warnings".
In a telephone conversation earlier today, one of the plaintiffs, Chris Manthey, confirmed that their primary interest was to require accurate labeling so that consumers could make informed choices on how much of the dangerous chemicals they wanted to consume. We discussed the benefit-risk aspect of the products and he confirmed that he and the other plaintiffs had no doubts about the many benefits of fish oil (among them lowering cholesterol, helping treat prostate cancer and Alzheimer's). Based on the logic that "less is better" when it comes to consuming known cancer-causing agents, Manthey feels that consumers should have the information available on the package.
In a telephone interview with the attorney that filed the suit, David Roe (closely affliated with Prop. 65 for over twenty years), I discovered that the California law allows any citizen (including non-California residents) to file suit to assist the attorney general's office in enforcement. The law allows the plaintiffs to ask for warnings from the sellers of these products as well as civil penalties. It also could require the defendants to seek out every prior consumer of the products and issue them a fair warning. The companies could face penalties up to $2,500 per day per violation, with three-quarters of any financial penalties going to the state and 25 percent going to the plaintiffs.
Asked why only two retailers were presently in the list of eight defendants, Mr. Roe answered, "We only tested ten samples." He added that in addition to manufacturers of the product, "…retailers are also responsible for warning consumers. We aren't making claims that our ten tests are representative of what is being sold in the market. The wide range in PCB levels found is what is important."
According to the press release, some products have levels as low as 1/70 of others tested. Roe also confirmed that Prop. 65 does not require individual package labeling and that a well publicized and clearly posted warning would comply. Government guidelines for over the counter products like fish oil only require the label to state accurately the contents of the active ingredient.
Concerned consumers can either wait for the test results of their chosen product or ask their doctor for a prescription. Fish oil is available on prescription and subject to more strict quality controls imposed by the Food and Drug Administration.