Adulterated supplements use ‘resold’ barcodes to avoid enforcement

A link has been established between recalled men’s supplements and the use of fraudulent “resold” UPC barcodes that are intended for other products, a study has revealed.

According to MaxLabs US, the Michigan-based producer of Impress dietary supplement for men that conducted the study, 100 per cent of the recalled supplements studied had Universal Product Codes (UPC) that did not match the UPC holder name on the product packaging.

The male enhancement supplements had been recalled by FDA because of the presence of “hidden ingredients” not listed on the products labels, including the active ingredients found in FDA-approved prescription drugs, and which could pose a health risk to consumers.

This is the first time that UPC fraud has been linked with recalled men’s supplements, and MaxLabs US believes the discovery could serve to streamline enforcement activity to identify and prevent counterfeits and adulteration.

The study was borne out of the high number of supplement recalls, suggesting that dodgy dietary drugs were entering the market through an enforcement loophole.

In 2016 and 2017, the FDA recalled 103 brands of male enhancement supplements.

MaxLabs US looked at all 103 recalled supplements to determine whether they met criteria for further investigation, and identified 34 of those brands that satisfied the study requirements that the supplement was purportedly of US origin and that legible UPC barcode data was available.

UPC barcodes are unique to each product and are presented as a series of black vertical lines and 12 numbers that identify the product. Individual companies cannot create their own UPC codes, instead they have to be assigned a Company Prefix Number by not-for-profit business standards organisation GS1.

On investigation, MaxLabs US found that all 34 of the recalled supplements displayed barcodes assigned to entities other than those printed on the supplement packaging, including UPC codes originally assigned to fishing tackle, plumbing parts and clothing companies.

The MaxLabs US research also revealed that 41.2 per cent of the supplements had UPC codes that identified the UPC holder company as dissolved or suspended prior to the recall, while 23.5 per cent identified the UPC holder company as not registered in the state business database.

Just over 17 per cent of the UPC codes were for a company that was active but not in the supplement industry, while 14.7 per cent of the UPC holder companies were withheld or invalid. And 2.9 per cent of the UPC codes belonged to foreign companies.

“The UPC codes on items we buy are taken for granted. People don’t realise these barcodes are sophisticated identifiers, forever tied to the original company that purchased them,” Kenny Thomas, chief operating officer at MaxLabs US, said in a statement.

“While merchants can control what’s displayed when they are scanned, their original owner remains on permanent file with GS1. Barcodes can act as a ‘fingerprint’ that should link the UPC owner to the product. Unfortunately, idle barcodes assigned to defunct companies or discontinued items are sold on the open market and often printed on packaging of these fraudulent supplements.”

It is not currently illegal to use resold barcodes but Thomas noted that the practice appears to be widespread in adulterated male enhancement supplements. “It permits the makers to introduce their products into commerce while simultaneously concealing their identities from authorities and consumers. Prohibiting use of resold UPC codes on supplements would improve accountability and men’s safety.”

MaxLabs US’ study follows an earlier one by the company last year that looked at who was accountable for the mislabelling of male enhancement pills. The first part of the study found that 95 per cent of studied pills fell short of their labelled weight and that 88.5 per cent of underweight samples averaged 55.3 per cent less ingredient than stated.

The second part of the study involved investigating the owners of each UPC code to identify accountability for the mislabelling. The company found that 85 per cent of the UPC codes belonged to fictitious, unregistered entities and some barcodes had been “hijacked” from companies not in the supplement space.

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