Archive for the ‘information’ Category

Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

Food Labels that Matter

Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.

Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.

So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.

Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.

If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.

Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.

If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.

The Hidden Ethical Value of Social Networking

Like it or not, we are in the middle of a social networking revolution. And of course, that’s hardly news. Endless ink, digital and otherwise, has been spent on worrying over whether Facebook, Twitter, and their rapidly-multiplying ilk are the best or the worst thing that has ever happened to humankind.

A recent story about car-pooling apps highlights the fact modern technology, including social media, has a role to play in making markets more efficient. And since efficient markets are generally a good thing, this counts as a big checkmark in the “plus” column of our calculations concerning the net benefit of social media.

Carpooling is a great example, because the relative lack of carpooling today is a clear instance of what economists call “market failure” — a situation in which markets fail efficiently to provide a mutually-beneficial outcome. Think of it this way. There are lots of people in need of a ride. And there are lots of people with rides to offer. The problem is a lack of information (who is going my way, at what time?) and lack of trust (is that guy a potential serial killer?) Social networking promises to resolve both of those problems, first by helping people coordinate and second by using various mechanisms to make sure that everyone participating is more or less trustworthy.

With regard to car-pooling, the obvious benefits are environmental. But the positive effect here is quite general: just about any time we find a way to foster mutually-advantageous market exchanges, we’ve done something unambiguously good. This is one example of the ethical power of social media.

Another big enemy of efficient markets is monopoly power, or more generally any situation in which a buyer or seller is able to exert “market power,” essentially a situation in which some market actor enjoys a relative lack of competition and hence has the ability to throw its weight around. Social media promises improvements here, too. Sites like allow individuals to aggregate in ways that give them substantial bargaining power.

The general lesson here is that markets thrive on information. Indeed, economists’ formal models for efficient markets assume that all participants have full knowledge — that is, they assume that lack of information will never be an issue. Social networks are providing increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for aggregating, sharing, and filtering information, including important information about what consumers want, about what companies have to offer, and so on. So while a lot of attention has been paid to the sense in which social media are “bringing us together,” the real payoff may lie in the way social media render markets more efficient.

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