Retail giant Wal-Mart has stopped selling a popular sports dietary supplement on its website and a U.S. senator demanded tougher regulation in the wake of a USA TODAY investigation published last week.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee said the company pulled Craze, a pre-workout powder, off its retail website Thursday after the investigation showed that the product's maker, Matt Cahill, has a history of putting risky supplements on the market.
"We did this to allow us time to look further into not only the safety of the product, but also the integrity of the supplier," Gee said, noting that Craze was only sold online and not on shelves of the company's stores.
Cahill has declined repeated interview requests and offered no response to Wal-Mart's action when contacted by e-mail this week. A statement posted on the website of his company, Driven Sports, said the company is "disappointed" by USA TODAY's report and that Craze is a legal and safe supplement. The company has issued repeated denials that Craze contains amphetamine-like substances found by some outside labs.
Craze is the latest in a series of products Cahill has put on the market, including weight-loss pills made from a highly toxic chemical pesticide banned from human consumption and a designer steroid linked to serious liver damage. Cahill was convicted in 2005 of felony charges for the sale of the weight-loss pills and served a two-year prison sentence. He's currently facing a federal criminal charge for selling another dietary supplement, Rebound XT, that prosecutors allege contained an unapproved new drug.
"Last week's USA TODAY investigation raises serious questions about what we can do to better protect people who trust that the dietary supplement they use is safe," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
In a speech Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Durbin repeatedly cited USA TODAY's investigation in announcing he will reintroduce legislation this week to requiresupplement makers to register new products with the FDA within 30 days and include a list of all ingredients plus a copy of the label.
Under current laws, dietary supplements -- including vitamins and herbal remedies -- are treated like foods and assumed to be all-natural and safe. They do not require testing or approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before being sold. Registration would give the FDA an early warning when supplement makers start selling products listing unusual ingredients.
Craze on its label says it contains "dendrobium extract," an ingredient few had heard of before the product was launched as an energy booster in late 2011. Dendrobium is a plant in the orchid family and Craze's label says the extract is concentrated for certain phenylethylamine compounds, which are similar in structure to amphetamine.
Tests of Craze by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and a Swedish national lab have found amphetamine and other amphetamine-like compounds. Driven Sports, Cahill's company, has repeatedly denied that Craze contains amphetamines and the company has posted its own test results saying they prove the product is clean. Driven Sports has blamed questions raised about Craze on a "smear campaign" by competitors in the supplement industry who have also released test results finding amphetamine-like compounds in the product.
Scientific experts question whether some of the compounds listed on Craze's label are natural -- a requirement for the product to be considered a supplement. There is no scientific evidence that dendrobium plants naturally contain these compounds, said Ikhlas Khan of the University of Mississippi's National Center for Natural Products Research.
Cahill did not respond to USA TODAY's requests for studies or other documentation showing that the compounds it lists as being in Craze's dendrobium extract are naturally found in plants. His attorney Aaron Goldsmith, in an e-mail Tuesday night, said, "While Driven Sports has the documentation to substantiate its statements, the company will not provide same for the article at this time."
The Department of Defense's Human Performance Resource Center, which advises the military health system on supplement issues, says on its website that the science "suggests some dendrobium-containing products may have been 'spiked.'"
Daniel Fabricant, who heads FDA's division of dietary supplements, on Tuesday declined to answer questions about Craze and Cahill. Fabricant has previously said the agency is concerned about the increased number of supplements that contain stimulant compounds that claim to be from dendrobium.
Supplement industry officials and another member of Congress said the industry doesn't need more regulation, just better enforcement by the FDA of existing laws.
"The FDA has ample tools at its disposal to deal with this and they should, they should take swift action," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus, which works on legislative issues involving supplements. "When there is a bad apple, we need the regulators to take action. By not doing so, it puts a black eye on the entire industry, and that's not right either."
Frank Lampe, a vice president at the United Natural Products Alliance, said supplements are already highly regulated. "FDA has full regulatory power to take products that are illegally sold off the market immediately," he said.
Leading sports organizations say the industry's history and the current regulatory approach give consumers little reason to have confidence in supplements.
"They are not well-regulated and they can contain a banned ingredient not even listed on the label," said Mary Wilfert, associate director of the NCAA's Sport Science Institute, which studies health and safety in athletics. Wilfert said that's why the NCAA cautions against the use of dietary supplements by student athletes.
"There is simply no way for an athlete, coach, trainer or parent to walk into a store and be able to tell by reading the label what is in the product," said Amy Eichner of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a non-profit designated by Congress to oversee testing of Olympic and other athletes for prohibited performance-enhancing substances.
Eichner noted that some supplement companies have inconsistent manufacturing practices and receive raw ingredients from questionable sources. "Which means that even bottles of the same product, made by the same company with identical labels may contain different substances or varying quantities of substances," she said.
Bodybuilding.com, a popular online seller of supplements, continues to sell Craze. Yet top executives have been discussing "whether or not we want to continue doing business with Matt Cahill," said the website's general counsel, Bill Carter. He said Bodybuilding.com has conducted about about a dozen tests on samples of the product, plus a few tests of blood and urine from volunteers who took Craze, and has not found any amphetamine-like compounds.
Alison Young, USA TODAY
Gannett / USA Today