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2014 Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Supplement Shell Game: The People Behind Risky Pills

 

Finalist(s)
Alison Young, John Hillkirk, Shannon Rae Green, Jerry Mosemak, Alejandro Gonzalez

Organization
USA TODAY

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Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom

Program
2014

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About the Project

More than half the U.S. population takes some sort of dietary supplement, anything from a vitamin to an herbal remedy to a pill that’s supposed to ward off colds, burn fat or energize a gym workout.

But how much do you really know about the people and companies making these supposedly “all-natural” supplements?

A far-reaching investigation throughout 2013 by USA TODAY reporter Alison Young revealed that a wide array of supplement companies selling products spiked with hidden pharmaceuticals are headed by executives with criminal backgrounds and run-ins with regulators. Some are even leaders of major industry associations. They’re convicted felons, thieves, drug addicts, narcotic sellers and more, the reporting revealed.

And once they enter the lucrative, $30-billion-a-year supplement business, almost anything goes.

Criminals turned supplement entrepreneurs have repeatedly put risky products on the market through a changing series of companies as overwhelmed regulators struggled to keep up. Their pills and powders have included everything from a sleep-aid laced with a powerful anti-psychotic drug, to widely sold workout supplements spiked with a methamphetamine-like chemical never tested on people.

Young’s groundbreaking work in “Supplement Shell Game” was unique in that it focused on the “people” behind the products, not just the supplements themselves. This was brave and ambitious reporting considering that the targets of the investigation had no interest in having their criminal pasts — and their histories of rolling out tainted supplements — exposed.

The series took full advantage of a wide range of online storytelling platforms and techniques. They include a deeply reported interactive that allows users to use a slider bar to go deep into the criminal histories of people behind risky supplements. Video storytelling takes users on a journey to Mexico in search of the maker of a dangerous arthritis supplement, and it allows them meet the maker of cutting-edge sports supplements, as well consumers who have paid dearly with their health and lives after taking his products.

Over the course of 10 months, Young examined more than 100 companies, digging deep into corporation documents, trademark applications and court records to identify and background the people running the firms. She annotated her online stories with hyperlinks to more than 300 pages of records, many of them pried out of the FDA, pulled from court files or archives that were otherwise inaccessible to most consumers.

The series has already had tremendous impact. Two dietary supplements, including one of 2012’s top bodybuilding products, have been pulled off the market by Wal-mart and other retailers – and ultimately the manufacturers themselves. A third supplement was quietly recalled by its maker after Young raised repeated questions about its active ingredient, and a Florida supplement seller is facing a reopened felony charge, also as a result of her work. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, the No. 2 Democrat repeatedly cited Young’s reporting in announcing a bill to strengthen supplement regulations. And even key leaders of the supplement industry, citing Young’s reporting, conceded that it’s time to consider more oversight of the industry’s bad actors.

The series began in July 2013 with an investigation focused on Matt Cahill, the supplement designer behind Driven Sports’ wildly popular pre-workout powder Craze, named 2012’s New Supplement of the Year by Bodybuilding.com. Young exposed Cahill as a convicted felon who served federal prison time for stuffing capsules with a highly toxic pesticide and baking powder, then selling them for weight loss, and moved on to introduce a series of risky products over the past 12 years. Young revealed troubling lab test results indicating Craze was spiked with a hidden stimulant.

The Cahill investigation included a long-form investigative video and a video interactive that lets you watch Cahill describe how easy it was for a community college dropout to manufacture and put a dangerous designer steroid on the market. In the wake of Young’s investigation of Cahill, teams of researchers in South Korea, the Netherlands and the U.S. have published articles in scientific journals finding that Craze contains a methamphetamine-like compound.

Young next traveled to Mexico to investigate Riger Natural, the company behind Reumofan, an arthritis remedy linked to severe side effects among U.S. consumers. Young revealed Riger Natural — like dozens of other companies is a phantom firm using fake addresses, slick packaging and hidden ingredients to prey upon consumers’ trust. She also found an intriguing clue tying the supplements sold in the U.S. to a Mexican pharmaceutical manufacturer. In addition to the investigative article, the report features a long-form investigative video that Young produced.

Last summer, after an outbreak of serious liver injuries was linked by federal health officials to the weight-loss supplement OxyElite Pro made by USPlabs, Young found records from court archives in Texas to reveal the company’s CEO has a criminal history involving anabolic steroids, and a long-history of run-ins with the FDA.

A December story revealed 14 more supplement executives selling risky products who have criminal records – and used a unique interactive with a slide bar to tell their stories in depth. The full series is online at supplements.usatoday.com.

Harvard Medical School assistant professor and supplement expert Pieter Cohen praised USA TODAY’s tenacious reporting and noted that it resulted in Craze and the weight-loss pill Detonate to be pulled from the market in a matter of months. In contrast, Cohen notes, it took the FDA several years to begin removing supplements containing the stimulant DMAA from the market. (The FDA in April 2014 took its first public action involving Craze by issuing a warning letter to the product’s maker nearly 11 months after the company stopped selling it.)

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has publicly called the series “important,” and along with the U.S. Olympic Committee, shared the stories with athletes as they prepared for the Winter Games.