Posted 4 April 2013
The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) has given their “Smart Choice” Seal of Recognition to the product Omega Caro-E. CANSA claims not to “endorse products, but ‘awards its’ Seal to certain products”. This is disingenuous for this is after all, still a form of endorsement. And, as they demonstrate on their website, they are given the authority to do so by the Department of Health.
CANSA invited media and health professionals to a launch of their awarding of the “Smart Choice” Seal of Recognition to Omega Caro-E. The invitation stated that the product “can assist with reducing the risk of cancer and other noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.” Prof Roy Jobson (Pharmacology, Rhodes University) wrote a letter to the CEO of CANSA, Ms Janse van Rensburg, asking for evidence that these claims were supported by scientific evidence, and if they were true whether the product would not then be classifiable as a medicine in South Africa. This resulted in email correspondence with CANSA providing “evidence” supporting their claims; and Prof Jobson showing that the evidence was inadequate or did not apply to the specific product Omega Caro-E. Further background to this product can be read on the Quackdown blog.
CANSA have now made public their 30 responses to “the concerns raised by Professor Jobson.” One of the “tricks” used in CANSA’s response is to create a series of questions – many of which were not asked by Prof Jobson.
Prof Jobson’s main concern was whether or not the product Omega Caro-E had in fact been shown to be absorbed in humans and whether or not the blood levels of the components were increased. The answer: no tests were done in humans to see if taking the product increased blood levels of the components. One would not think this by reading CANSA’s statement: “There are many scientific reports linking the uptake of these chemicals to a lower risk of cancer in humans” – which statement is then elaborated on through an FAQs link to Omega Caro-E. Most consumers reading this statement would probably think that the chemicals in Omega Caro-E had in fact been proven to be “taken up” or absorbed in humans. The most unfortunate fact is that because we don’t know whether or not the blood and tissue levels of the components are increased – it is not possible for CANSA to make many of the other claims made, including that Omega Caro-E is cost-effective. It may be very poorly absorbed and if so, not cost-effective at all.
Consumers have a right to make up their own minds by evaluating Prof Jobson’s questions and CANSA’s responses.
Here are copies of Prof Jobson’s letters of concerns to the CEO of CANSA dated 19 February 2013: LetterCEO-CANSA-OmegaCaroE(CANSA)2013-02-19 and 27 February 2013: LetterCEO-CANSA-OmegaCaroE(CANSA)2013-02-27
Jobson’s deconstruction of the 30 responses provided by CANSA can be found here: JobsonComments-CANSARESPONSEREOMEGACARO-E-2013-03-19.
This is not easy reading (and it may be necessary to jump between the letters of 27-Feb and 19 March to make sense of them) – but it does help show the differences in thinking between an academic and a “watchdog” organisation which is intended to assist cancer patients (and simultaneously market a product – not to cancer patients but to healthy people to “reduce the [possible but unknown] risk of cancer”).
Unfortunately, this sorry saga brings into question the whole system of certain organisations “endorsing” (awarding recognition to) certain foodstuffs and other products for their purported health benefits. Perhaps it was premature for CANSA to create a whole new category called “Smart Choice Supplement” in the case of Omega Caro-E? We do know that the Department of Health will be publishing its “phase 2” of the foodstuffs labelling and advertising regulations in the near future (which includes health claims). These should help give clarity as to what health claims are or are not permissible for foodstuffs – and even CANSA adopts the definition that a food supplement is a “foodstuff” as stated in their response (Response 28) to Prof Jobson.