David Humphrey’s company has built a lab to weed out contaminants in supplements. // Photo by Teresa Meier
Kirkman Group president David Humphrey says he prides himself on the purity of the food supplements his company makes in Lake Oswego and sells globally. So it bothered him profoundly to have to recall several products in December 2009 after learning they were contaminated with antimony, a toxic chemical.
“We can’t be preaching on being a great company, watching out for stuff, and having a heavy metal in one of our products that might harm children,” says Humphrey. So Kirkman spent about a million dollars on dealing with the recall, then spent another $2 million on a long-term solution: a lab across the street from headquarters with mass spectrometry machines to identify and analyze potential contaminants in ingredients used to make the enzymes, probiotics and vitamin pills that Kirkman sells.
Questionable ingredients in over-the-counter “nutraceuticals” have become a vexing problem in a loosely regulated $26 billion industry. Humphrey, who does not shy from hyperbole, says contaminants in supplements have resulted in “hundreds if not thousands of deaths.” Most of the ingredients for these products come from overseas, where oversight is lax or nonexistent, and when they enter the United States they are not tested.
Humphrey says Kirkman’s new testing protocol goes far beyond what the Food and Drug Administration requires. He argues that testing ingredients carefully could improve standards in the industry, at a minimal cost. “For 50 cents a jar, you could test everything,” he says. “If the suppliers know we won’t buy contaminated product, they won’t ship it.”
Kirkman specializes in supplements for people with dietary restrictions and environmental sensitivities. The company has a history of selling to families with autistic children, although its catalog contains an oft-repeated disclaimer that products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Humphrey took over the family business from his father 10 years ago, growing revenues to over $12 million and jobs from five to 100. About 20 employees work in the new testing lab. Humphrey says the new lab represents “a challenge to other companies in this business to do the same thing.”