16 September 2015
R2 million. That’s how much sport supplement company Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN) wants consumer activist Harris Steinman to pay for calling its owner, Albe Geldenhuys, a “scam artist”, “liar”, “quack”, “fraud” and “snake oil salesman”.
USN’s lawyers have sent Steinman a summons to the Cape High Court, in which they accuse him of defaming USN and Geldenhuys.
Steinman has been a consumer activist and outspoken advocate against quackery for decades. He regularly lodges complaints — which usually succeed — with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). He runs a popular website called Camcheck which describes itself as a “South African consumers’ guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science”.
Geldenhuys, a former winner of the male beauty pageant Manhunt International, started USN in South Africa in 2000. The company has since gone multinational, with offices in the UK, US, Australia and Ireland. The company’s webpage says it is “at the forefront of sports nutrition research, making effective sports nutrition supplements”.
Earlier this year, USN lodged an internet take-down notice against Steinman’s website which was hosted in South Africa with Hetzner. So Steinman moved Camcheck to an offshore host.
If you Google “USN Albe Geldenhuys”, the first hit is a Camcheck article titled, Albe Geldenhuys of USN, a master scam artist?.
Steinman says that USN has had dozens of complaints lodged against it at the ASA. In most cases USN has withdrawn the advertising claims or the ASA has ruled against it. “There is no robust proof that the majority of USN products, bar a few, are able to benefit consumers as USN claims – above that of a placebo response,” Steinman states on his site.
For most of the disputes between USN and Steinman the truth or falsehood of the claims requires technical explanations beyond the scope of this article. But most readers should immediately see from the photo below of a bracelet that USN used to sell, that the company has certainly at one time made false claims about a product:
The USN summons also states that Steinman accuses USN of “intentionally hiding banned substances” in its products. Steinman points out that what he actually wrote was, “Remember how USN contaminated products almost ruined two springbok careers?” Indeed, USN products were reported to have been the cause of five sportsmen failing drug tests. USN has since recalled those products. Steinman says he has not accused USN of intentionally putting banned substances in its supplements; he has merely pointed out that some of its products did have banned substances.
Steinman is widely respected in medical circles. Roy Jobson, a medical doctor and professor of pharmacology, describes Camcheck as a pioneering public service “where citizens can quickly check up on a large number of products being sold, some of which do not have evidence that they work, and may even in some instances be illegal.” He worries about the consequences of Steinman being silenced by a lawsuit, “This important work should not be hampered by corporations trying to silence his criticism of their particular products.”
Steinman says he became a consumer activist after being “fooled by the claims of a product years ago.” He says that although he has been scientifically trained — Steinman is a medical doctor — this made him realise “if I could be fooled, then I needed to empower myself and use that knowledge to educate and bring to the attention of consumers claims for products that were not proven”.
He says USN’s litigation will not dampen his consumer activism. On the contrary, “Hopefully USN’s actions will put the spotlight on how it, and other companies, conduct business. And if this goes as far as the Constitutional Court, [it might] put pressure on the regulators to do more to protect consumers.”
Steinman says it is ironic that “USN thinks it is acceptable to make any claim that it likes … with no evidence, but that it wants to deny my right to point out the falseness of the claims.” He says that USN’s litigation shows how companies “can use their financial muscle to intimidate and try to close down comments of any consumer, scientist or even experts simply for drawing attention to the truth.”
GroundUp gave USN more than a day to answer questions and comment. The company’s PR agency requested an extension till 12pm on 16 September which was granted. But no response has yet been received. USN’s central phone number was also not being answered at the time of publication.
UPDATE on 17 September: USN has declined to comment, saying that the matter is “sub-judice”.
See also: The harm of quackery.