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Can you trust the Better Business Bureau®?

The BBB's Review of Five Different Supplement Manufacturers

Figure 1 Where is the Better Business Bureau® getting its grades? Image created by Puccio.

Have you ever checked out a business or complained about one using the Better Business Bureau® (BBB®) service? The BBB is an investigative and information service which is relative to business and trade practices for protecting responsible business and the public against abusive business practices and for establishing and maintaining legitimate advertising and merchandising practices.

According to their website, the BBB is an authority on trust that sets and maintains high standards for an ethical marketplace. The BBB evaluates businesses based on several criteria and then assigns a letter grade based on the following factors:

  • Business' complaint history with BBB.
  • Type of business.
  • Time in business.
  • Background information on business in BBB files.
  • Failure to honor commitments to BBB.
  • Licensing and government actions known to BBB.
  • Advertising issues known to BBB.

According to the BBB, their A+ (highest) to F (lowest) letter grade represents their opinion of the reviewed business. Considering the BBB has been around since 1912, it should be safe to assume they are quite good at their review process. However, I discovered some surprising discrepancies recently while viewing some BBB business reports.

To kick things off, I viewed BBB reports for the following companies: HCG Platinum™, LLC, USPlabs®, LLC, Speedwinds Nutrition™, Force Factor®, LLC, and NOW® Foods. Here's a snapshot of the results:

Figure 2. BBB reports for 5 dietary supplement companies. Image created by Puccio.

Government or legal issues? No problem.

I'm sure you caught the "F" grade assigned to HCG Platinum, LLC. While the BBB states, "BBB knows of no significant government actions involving HCG Platinum, LLC", the FDA did in fact send a warning letter to HCG Platinum on 11/28/2011 stating the company and its products were in, "violation of sections 301 and 505 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. §§ 331 and 355] and are misbranded in violation of sections 503 and 301 of the Act [21 U.S.C. §§ 353 and 331]". This warning letter was part of a FDA crackdown on HCG weight loss scams that were proliferating in the market. While the FDA's actions are not always applauded, the crackdown was well respected by the natural products industry, which has zero tolerance for deceptive marketing and dietary supplement scams. It appears the "F" grade is primarily due to HCG Platinum's "Failure to respond to 2 complaints filed against business".

USPlabs, LLC has been the primary target of a wide scale federal investigation regarding an ingredient in at least two of their products. After an initial FDA warning letter was sent on April 24, 2012, the FDA and USPlabs had been dueling for nearly a year about the legitimacy of a highly controversial ingredient commonly named DMAA. In the end, USPlabs was unable to provide the FDA with sufficient evidence in support of DMAA. The FDA declared DMAA illegal on April 13, 2013, and required its removal from the market. The FDA's actions regarding DMAA were applauded by the natural products industry due to the complete lack of safety data for DMAA and its highly questionable origins. However, once again the BBB states, "BBB knows of no significant government actions involving USPlabs, LLC", and further mentions, "BBB has sufficient background information on this business". Oddly enough, the BBB has assigned USPlabs an A+ grade. I'm curious to know how an extremely high profile FDA battle with USPlabs has gone completely unnoticed by the BBB. It begs the question, "if HCG Platinum would have responded to just 2 complaints, would they too have an A+ rating"? If that answer is "yes", then the BBB has a significant issue with their credibility as a self-proclaimed "authority on trust in the marketplace".

Pattern of customer complaints? No problem.

Even if we decide to give the BBB a free pass for completely missing some rather significant government actions against those two companies, we should expect they can properly manage customer complaints that they receive about businesses. Well, as it turns out I found some disturbing discrepancies there too.

I pulled a BBB report on two more companies, Speedwinds Nutrition and Force Factor, LLC; both well known for their aggressive marketing tactics of their dietary supplements. In addition, both companies market "free trial" offers that include automated rebilling if you fail to return the product to them in a specified period of time. Numerous client complaints can be found online by entering a simple search term such as, " [company] scam ". The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also warns consumers about this type of product marketing , also known as "forced continuity" marketing:

"Buying plans often promise free or deeply discounted products. Once you've signed up, they send you products automatically until you cancel. Some plans charge you a monthly fee in exchange for the right to buy products at supposedly discounted prices. Before you sign up for a buying plan, research the company, look for other people’s experiences, compare prices with those of other retailers, and read the terms of the offer. Consider whether you’re likely to save any money buying through the plan, or just get products you neither want nor need".

As you'd probably expect, forced continuity marketing can be very misleading, confusing and frustrating to exit once you buy into it. While most individuals won't take the time to contact the BBB about such frustrations, some have. As of July 12, 2013, Speedwinds Nutrition accumulated 127 complaints in the last 3 years, and 53 in the last 12 months with the BBB. The BBB also commented, "On June 15, 2012, BBB recognized a pattern of complaints from consumers regarding billing and delivery issues". So in this case, the BBB has clearly identified an issue but still gives Speedwinds Nutrition an "A+" grade.

Moving on to Force Factor, which accumulated 148 complaints in the last 3 years and 63 in the last 12 months with the BBB. In comparison, Force Factor has accumulated more complaints, and yet the BBB doesn't "recognize a pattern of complaints" even though Force Factor had more "Billing / Collection Issues" complaints and substantially higher "Advertising/Sales Issues" complaints than Speedwinds Nutrition. In light of this, the BBB still assigned Force Factor with an "A" grade and only commented that, "A factor that lowered the rating was Length of time business has been operating".

Something caught my attention with both Speedwinds Nutrition and Force Factor; they are paying members of the BBB. Could financial contribution be a factor in the grading system? It's purely speculation, but interesting nonetheless. Also, the BBB apparently gave HCG Platinum an "F" grade because of their "Failure to respond to 2 complaints filed against business". So, 2 unanswered complaints is worse than 127 or 148 answered complaints? I understand that complaints can be filed against any company, and it's important to address those complaints professionally. However, this leads me to my final discovery.

4 decades of business with 2 complaints? We have a problem.

To preface this section I must mention that NOW Foods is one of the oldest (est. 1968), largest and most reputable dietary supplement manufacturers on planet Earth. Their quality control standards, testing methods and staff of medical doctors, scientists, dieticians, etc. is extremely well respected in the industry. NOW Foods is FDA cGMP and NPA certified, the latter being more strict on dietary supplement manufacturing procedures. NOW Foods manufactures and distributes more than 1,400 dietary supplements, natural foods, and sports nutrition products. NOW Foods doesn't bark to get attention, they don't employ forced continuity programs, and they are not battling the FDA with compliancy issues. In a nut shell, NOW Foods operates with compliant efficiency.

So, I pulled a BBB report on NOW Foods and about fell out of my chair when I saw a "C-" grade that seemed to glare sarcastically at me. That's right CasePerformance readers, a C Minus. I immediately scrolled down to see the "complaints" section, fully expecting to see at least 200-300 complaints that might justify such a low grade. TWO…2 complaints over 3 years and only 1 in the last 12 months. Well, I must have missed something: Government actions? No. Unanswered complaints? No. Instead, the BBB reportedly lowered NOW Food's grade because of, "BBB concerns with the industry in which this business operates". BBB, do you mean the Dietary Supplement industry that HCG Platinum, USPlabs, Speedwinds Nutrition, and Force Factor are also part of? Is it possible that with the BBB's extensive research of these companies, they didn't realize that NOW Foods was also part of the same industry as the others?

Wanting some answers, I inquired directly with the BBB about two of the companies. Their response:

"After review of the two businesses the difference between the two are the categories in which they are placed. The Chicago BBB has Now Health Group as: Health & Medical Products – Scientifically Unproven, Health & Wellness, Health & Diet Products – Retail while the Western Washington BBB has Speedwinds Nutrition is categorized as: Vitamins & Food Supplements, Beauty Supplies & Equipment. The category in which a business is placed can make a difference on the overall rating based on market trends."

For a brief moment, I must remember that people are human and this could be a communication or data entry issue. However, upon analyzing the response I'm puzzled by the lack of uniformity. All 5 companies sell products as dietary supplements, plain and simple. That fact is easy to establish with a quick phone call or by visiting their websites, yet we have a different maze of categories that NOW Foods has been buried under including a misleading category titled, "Scientifically Unproven". I also noticed that NOW Foods was not a paying member of the BBB. It's unclear whether or not BBB membership influences a business's letter grade, but my findings leave a lot to be explained. The "complaint" platform is what the BBB is ultimately used for. However, in the cases of Speedwinds Nutrition and Force Factor, the large number of complaints didn't directly lower their grade at all, even after the BBB admitted recognizing complaint patterns.

Savvy consumers rely on businesses such as the BBB to help them make informed purchasing decisions. My BBB search result was incredibly confusing and misleading. I found the BBB had given high grades to companies that had been subject to justifiable government action and also companies with a significantly high number of complaints. In a bizarre twist, I found the BBB had given a low grade to NOW Foods, a company that truly exemplifies compliancy greatness in the supplement industry with only 2 complaints (resolved) in a 3 year period. In my experience, the BBB's grading system did not point me to better companies, in fact it was the opposite. Unless the BBB can improve their business review process, numerous consumers might unsuspectingly purchase dietary supplements from companies that have poor business practices or serious government compliancy issues.


1 The Better Business Bureau® and BBB® are registered service marks of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc.

2 HCG Platinum™ is a trademark of HCG Platinum, LLC.

3 USPlabs® is a registered trademark of USPlabs, LLC.

4 Speedwinds Nutrition™ is a trademark of Speedwinds Nutrition.

5 Force Factor® is a registered trademark of Hungry Fish Media, LLC.

6 NOW® is a registered trademark of Now Health Group, Inc.

7 http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4804:tvyh7v.2.31. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

8 http://www.bbb.org/us/bbb-structure/. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

9 http://www.bbb.org/business-reviews/ratings/. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

10 http://www.bbb.org/utah/business-reviews/health-and-medical-products/hcg-platinum-in-bluffdale-ut-22310756. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

11 http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm282062.htm. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

12 http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/MedicationHealthFraud/ucm282465.htm. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

13 http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2012/ucm302167.htm. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

14 http://blog.nutribodies.com/1/fda-charge-against-dmaa. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

15 http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofFoods/CFSAN/CFSANFOIAElectronicReadingRoom/ucm350199.htm. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

16 http://www.bbb.org/dallas/business-reviews/health-and-diet-food-products-wholesale-and-manufacturing/usplabs-in-dallas-tx-90310106. Accessed on 7/12/2013.

17 http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0068-how-buying-plans-work. Accessed on 7/13/2013.

18 http://www.bbb.org/oregon/business-reviews/vitamins-and-food-supplements/speedwinds-nutrition-in-portland-or-37005337. Accessed on 7/13/2013.

19 http://www.bbb.org/boston/business-reviews/vitamins-and-food-supplements/force-factor-llc-in-boston-ma-117868. Accessed on 7/13/2013.

20 http://www.bbb.org/chicago/business-reviews/health-and-medical-products-scientifically-unproven/now-health-group-in-bloomingdale-il-12005839. Accessed on 7/13/2013.

Click Here to find out "Why we do, what we do."

Written by Puccio, and disseminated with permission, from the Nucleo Blog on July 15, 2013.

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.