What’s not to like on Facebook? FDA’s View

Sometimes FDA and other government agencies seem to be a bit behind the times but just last week FDA published the 19th warning letter to mention Facebook.  Some of these letters from the past three years have also cited Twitter and Tumblr as sources of violative claims.  While these letters were primarily directed at dietary supplement companies, food, cosmetic and even drug companies can easily run afoul of FDA regulations on social media sites.

The most recent warning letter to mention Facebook, which was sent to Zarbee’s Inc. of Draper, UT. not only cites the company’s own Facebook postings but notes that “Zarbees “liked” the following comment…” and goes on to quote from customer posts noting how well the products worked for coughs, insomnia and other ailments. In 2012 FDA had disliked the like that AMARC Enterprises, Inc. of El Cajon, CA gave to one of its customer’s posts about using their dietary supplement product for cancer.

The concept that testimonials presented on company websites and in other marketing materials are claims that are subject to regulatory scrutiny is not new.. In 2009 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a guidance document on testimonials and endorsements in advertising http://tinyurl.com/kdxnoqa  noting that they, like all marketing claims must be truthful, not misleading and supported by data.  FDA expands requirements for endorsements and testimonials to require that they comply with regulations on allowable claims.
All companies like positive comments and testimonials from customers. While consumer comments are not a new phenomenon, the consumer’s ability to publish their comments to the world on social media sites is new. So what is a company to do when a happy customer posts something that makes a claim that violates the regulations governing the compliant marking of their product?
Several of the Facebook warning letters included this note from FDA,
“We advise you review all the information on your websites, including testimonials, social media websites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), product labels, and other labeling and promotional materials for your products to ensure the claims you make are not in violation of the FD&C Act. It is your responsibility to assure compliance with all requirements of federal law and FDA regulations.”
The last sentence makes it clear: Companies must closely monitor their social media for compliance with FDA regulations. If a post about a product goes beyond what is allowed by regulation, the posts must be deleted or edited to become compliant. If you are a dietary supplement company and a customer posts that your product cured an ailment or relieved pain; your product just became an unapproved new drug subject to FDA enforcement. If you are a cosmetic company and a happy customer states that your oil healed their skin condition, that oil just became an unapproved new drug subject to FDA enforcement. If you are selling an OTC drug and a customer posts about a use that is not covered in the approved labeling of your product, you are also subject to FDA enforcement action.

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