On the positive side, they correctly point out a relatively major concern with natural health products (other than the glaring lack of evidence for efficacy) — poor regulatory practices. Although Health Canada has regulations in place to ensure the safety of products like Cold-Fx, there is no guarantee that the company will follow them or that Health Canada will be aware of infractions.
CBC explained that certain batches of Cold-Fx were contaminated with various bacteria, including E. coli in their liquid formulation. However, many of the contaminants they found were within safety regulation levels. They were nevertheless presented in a somewhat sensationalistic “guilt by association” manner, along with the E. coli issues. I felt this was an unnecessary tactic, as the poor conditions of the China-based manufacturing plant and the failure to report the E. coli issues to Health Canada in a timely manner were damning in themselves.
I also question the point of having Don Cherry on the show other than to get viewers; either because they are fans of him, or because they wanted to see him skewered. Yes, he was the major spokesperson for Cold-Fx, but they did not touch on the issue of the responsibilities (or not) of spokespersons (to my recollection) and he is not a drug expert nor has nothing to do with the production of or research for this product. However, he did demonstrate a common argument among users of products such as Cold-Fx, laying either his ignorance of confirmation bias or his Stockholm Syndrome out for all to see by stating that he didn’t care what scientists had to say, because he uses Cold-Fx regularly and dammit it works. This is despite evidence demonstrating no practical effect of taking this very expensive product. Another point missed by Marketplace, the majority of Canadians do not have Don Cherry’s disposable income to spend over $700 on the recommended dosage. A dosage that, by the way, isn’t supported in the literature.
Marketplace also highlighted another issue with the natural health industry — lack of regulation compliance regarding advertising and the complete lack of punishment for it even after warnings from Health Canada. The Cold-Fx packaging claims to stop a cold in its tracks and provide immediate relief, though it was never approved for that claim. When was this noticed? 5 years ago. When was it taken care of? Never. Cold-Fx reported that they were in the process of “phasing out” the packaging. Meanwhile, for the past 5 years consumers have been lied to with no punishment.
Though in general I found the episode to be very good at highlighting the lack of evidence, regulatory non-compliance, and the general risks of products such as Cold-Fx, I was turned off by the typical “confrontation TV” drama they included. In addition to speaking to Don Cherry, they cornered the co-founder of Cold-Fx outside a store to grill her with questions about the claims on the Cold-Fx packaging. What is anyone supposed to say in that situation? I’m sure others feel differently, but this is the kind of thing that makes me feel sympathy for the person being accosted, rather than highlighting whatever point is being made. I don’t think Marketplace honestly believed she had anything to do with the marketing language on the box of the product, it just makes “good TV” to have a camera crew and journalist shove a mic in someone’s face and have them be uncomfortable and cagey about it. But frankly I don’t see what value there is in saying “aha!” about a person who is completely surprised and unprepared to properly respond to some very direct and serious accusations about their employer.
Marketplace, when you have a good point, you don’t need to resort to that nonsense.
Also, I have a question for Marketplace: Where have you been for 10 years? Skeptics have been calling nonsense on Cold-Fx since forever ago and you’re just getting on this now? Nevertheless, thank you for taking this on and I hope to see more issues on Marketplace that highlight the supreme inadequacies of the consumer protection process in Canada, even when a company has been demonstrably in violation of regulations.
Note: Anyone who missed the original airing of the episode can watch the full episode here (only read the comments when properly fortified with the tinfoiliest of tinfoil hats).