I don't remember how I came upon the case of USA v. Shengyang Zhou, which formed the basis of my story Friday, but from the moment I found it, I knew it was journalism gold.
Here's a link to the story on drugs in supplements. The case, which involved the federal prosecution of a Chinese national for fake pharmaceuticals and "dietary supplements" filled with a pharmaceutical ingredient, was packed with court documents, which are catnip for a journalist.
There was a lengthy extremely detailed affidavit from a federal special agent which laid out the details of the months-long investigation. There were pages and pages of transcripts of undercover agents' recorded conversations with Zhou during meetings in Bangkok, Thailand. There were some transcripts from the sentencing hearing itself.
All of this was available on Pacer.gov, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the incredibly rich one-stop-shop for cases and documents from U.S. District, Bankruptcy, and federal Appellate courts. The website is searchable, and in many instances, the documents can be read online. Searching is free, but the site charges to read the documents.
After reading hundreds of pages of USA v. Zhou documents, I knew the case offered something very unusual -- insight into a mostly hidden but thriving, industry, mostly located overseas, involving people manufacturing and selling illicit health products labeled dietary supplements but really laced with pharmaceuticals.
I had always wondered who was doing this? How? What were their operations like? How much money did they make? How did they negotiate their sales, and from where? How did their products get to American consumers? What were they like as people? What kind of backgrounds did they have? Did they worry about being caught?
Zhou's case offered insight into all of these questions. Of course, his is just one case, and it is impossible to know whether he is representative or not.
Still, the details of his case were fascinating, including his assurance to the undercover agents that his products were safe because he had someone eat a whole bottle to see what happens.
The other side of this industry, of course, is the American consumer who, looking for a little help with weight loss, a bit of excitement on Saturday night, or some swift gains at the gym, winds up ordering a bottle of these products online, or purchasing them in a store.
If this consumer looks at the product label, there likely will be no indication that the capsules inside actually contain pharmaceutical ingredients of varying dosage and purity. Produced underground, the capsules may contain contaminants, too.
The answer, for the consumer, is to be very careful when selecting a product promising help with any of these areas. A lot of research is needed, along with a lot of skepticism and an honest conversation with a physician. Guarantees of dramatic results are red flags.
As with anything, the cliché holds -- if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.