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A 22-year-old soldier, with no history of health issues, collapsed while out for a training run, soon after ingesting a dietary supplement he had purchased from GNC. The supplement, which uses the brand name Jack3d, contained dimethylalimine (DMAA), a stimulant that promises to increase endurance and stamina among athletes. On the GNC website, promotions of the brand  assert that it would provide “ultra-intense muscle-gorging strength, energy, power and endurance.”

According to concerned observers though, DMAA is just one more supplement, in a long history of unregulated products, that creates inordinate and insufficiently documented threats to consumers’ health. They cite previous examples, such as ephedra in weight loss products, which caused many consumers to suffer heart attacks and strokes before it was removed from the market. Yet these and similar dietary supplements continue to be largely unregulated by national agencies such as the FDA or USDA.

Noting the lack of oversight, some legislators—and the family of the soldier who died after taking Jack3d—argue that retailers, such as GNC, should be held responsible for the effects of the products they sell. By creating a sort of scientific or expert image, GNC may signal that the products it sells have been tested and confirmed as safe. Instead, GNC’s legal status ensures that it cannot be held legally responsible for any damages imposed by the products it sells.

GNC defends this status vigorously, noting that it must depend on the guarantees offered by the vendors that make the supplements that the ingredients are safe. A parallel situation marks grocery stores, which cannot be held liable if, for example, a farmer provides them with vegetables contaminated with E. coli.

In the view of a Harvard Medical School researcher who investigates supplements, the problem stems mainly from how GNC presents itself, and how consumers come to view it: “GNC appears to look like a kind of pharmacy, but in reality it’s more of a flea market. If people viewed it as more of a flea market, they would understand that there are random people selling pills that don’t do much of anything, and occasionally might hurt.”

Source: Natasha Singer and Peter Lattman, “Is the Seller to Blame? Workout Supplement Challenged After Death of Soldier,” The New York Times, March 15, 2013