Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“We gave you the wrong information.” An apology from the CBC

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CBCWhenever we see someone step forward and admit their mistakes, along with a clear explanation so others can avoid the same, we applaud them.

Today, our digital hands are clapping for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), whose Marketplace has issued a lengthy explanation for why they reported incorrect results from tests of popular vitamins and supplements.

Since they do it so well, we’ll let them tell what happened:

Last summer, we embarked on an ambitious project: to test the accuracy of label claims of popular vitamins and supplements. We knew that there is very little independent testing done of supplements in Canada that is available to the public, so we wanted to find out if you’re really getting what you expect from the products you buy and trust.

So we did what we always do: We did research. We spoke with top experts in the field. And we decided to test a number of products to find out the answers for ourselves.

They found Neil Thanedar, an expert with solid credentials, who recommended a lab that did the testing. After running the findings by other experts, and giving companies a chance to respond, they ran the story, called “Some protein powders fail fitness test.”

Today, they retracted it.

Here’s what happened:

What we know now is that the lab got some of the results wrong. They didn’t just make a mistake on one test; we had several samples re-tested by other labs, and we now know that a number of results were incorrect. We still don’t know exactly how this happened, but the bottom line is one of the hardest things any journalist can ever have to face: Our report was wrong.

Here’s what we do know. We tested Emergen-C, a popular vitamin C product. The initial lab testing found that the product only contained one third of the amount of vitamin C the package promised. After re-testing samples from the same box at another independent lab, we now know there was no problem with the vitamin C levels in Emergen-C.

We also tested several protein powders for evidence of protein “spiking.” We know that spiking has been a problem in the supplements industry: It means that a manufacturer uses filler in its product because it’s cheaper or easier than the real thing.

Two of the products we tested, Cytosport’s Muscle Milk and GNC’s Lean Shake 25, appeared, in the initial lab testing, to be spiked. The GNC product appeared to have less than half the protein it promised. After retesting, we’ve discovered this is not the case: The products were not spiked.

Thanedar himself apologized, in a CBC news article about the retraction:

Thanedar admits some of the lab results were wrong.
“We’re apologizing to your audience. And we’re promising to improve ourselves,” Thanedar told Marketplace‘s Erica Johnson.
“We’ve done this test (of protein powder) more than a hundred times. And we haven’t seen an issue like this. And it’s incredibly frustrating for us because this is all the work we do,” he says.

Everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone owns up to them, the way the CBC did:

We’re responsible for our journalism, and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously. The lab results and analysis were wrong, but we reported it. We also want to apologize to the companies in our report.

We also want to apologize to you, our viewers.

Every week, we ask you to trust that we’ve brought you investigations that matter to you and are true, fair and in the public interest. And for more than 40 years, we’ve worked hard to live up to that reputation.

We’ve learned from this experience: We’re taking a hard look at how we use labs. And we’re going to continue to push ourselves to bring you the kind of groundbreaking stories that you’ve come to expect from us. We have a lot of great stories in the works, and we hope that you’ll stay with us.

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Written by Alison McCook

January 21st, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Comments
  • Bob Horvath January 22, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    There seems to be more to this story than meets the eye. Look at GNC’s statement (made well before this retraction) at http://gnc.ca/gnc-statement (as of this morning, they hadn’t revised it for the retraction).

    They say they told CBC (before partial publishing) that the methods of measurements used by the lab were outdated and below industry standards. But CBC went ahead and published the results of the story anyway. Not so much applause I think, except maybe from lawyers.

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