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Genetic Snake Oil

If you're hoping to market a genetic testing-based service by claiming it can help make consumers healthier in all kinds of ways — essentially medicine show-style — you may not only have the Food and Drug Administration on your case; the US Federal Trade Commission has recently taken a first step to put the kibosh on such offerings.

The FTC has finalized a settlement agreement with GeneLink and its former subsidiary foru International that requires the companies to cease marketing their genetics-based supplements without scientific evidence that support their health claims, according to Streetwise.

The FTC had charged that the two companies had "deceptively advertised" their genetically customized nutritional supplement offerings for treating diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and insomnia, and now the companies have agreed to stop making those claims.

"Customers would send them a cheek swab and the companies claimed they would analyze the DNA and use it to make nutritional supplements and skin repair serum that was 'scientifically proven' to work all kinds of miracles," Streetwise reports. The service cost $100 a month, they said, because the cures would not be permanent, and tens of thousands of people ordered them. The problem was that there was no science backing up the claims.

The FTC says the case is the first enforcement action it has taken against marketers of personalized genomics products. The settlement agreement prohibits the companies from claiming that any drug, food, or cosmetic will treat, prevent, mitigate, or reduce the risk of any disease — by modulating the effects of genes or based on a consumer's customized genetic assessment — unless the claim is true and supported by at least two adequate and well-controlled studies.

"To add insult to injury, GeneLink and foru also allegedly failed to take reasonable and appropriate security measures to safeguard personal information collected from nearly 30,000 people. That’s enough to give anyone insomnia," FTC Consumer Education Specialist Colleen Tressler noted in a blog post earlier this year, when the settlement was proposed.