WASHINGTON — The founder and president of Herbalife International told a stormy Senate hearing Wednesday that his controversial diet powders and pills are absolutely safe and he derided some of his medical critics for being overweight.
Referring to a panel of three nutrition and weight-control authorities who had questioned the safety of Herbalife products Tuesday, founder Mark Reynolds Hughes, 29, asked senators: "If they're such experts, then why are they fat? I've lost 16 pounds in the last few years."
For nearly two hours, Hughes responded with breezy, clipped answers to hostile questioning by members of the Senate Governmental Affairs permanent investigations subcommittee, which has been prodding the Food and Drug Administration to investigate the diet formulas and sales techniques of Los Angeles-based Herbalife.
At one point, Dr. David B. Katzin, a consultant to the firm, interrupted rapid-fire questioning by Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) to exclaim: "I don't feel the gentlemen here (from Herbalife) are getting a fair shake!"
Rudman charged that Katzin, a physician, had been put on the firm's payroll only three months ago to deal with the subcommittee in place of Richard Marconi, the manufacturer of Herbalife's food supplements who, Rudman said, had avoided testifying by going on a trip to China.
Rudman asked Hughes if he knew that Marconi, who says he is a doctor of nutrition, had received a mail-order doctorate degree from Donsbach University School of Nutrition, a non-accredited correspondence school in Huntington Beach, as disclosed last month by The Times. Hughes turned away the question by terming Marconi "one of the most brilliant men I know."
Sales of $1 Billion
Pressed by Rudman, Hughes acknowledged that his own formal education had stopped at the ninth grade. Asked how he was qualified to take issue with criticism of Herbalife from some leading medical authorities, Hughes snapped: "I defy anybody to be able to produce results as this company has."
Hughes said his 5-year-old firm, which projects sales of $1 billion this year, has sold 9.6 billion portions of its nutrition and diet formulas.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), the subcommittee chairman, reminded Hughes of criticism by some physicians that Herbalife--unlike similar products sold under the Cambridge diet plan--does not recommend that consumers seek guidance on their diets from doctors.
"Do you believe it's safe to use your products without consulting a doctor?" Roth asked.
"Sure," replied Hughes. "Everybody needs good, sound basic nutrition. We all know that."
Two Controversial Herbs
Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) asked Hughes about the use of two controversial herbs, comfrey and chaparral, in a formula called Herbal-Aloe. A panel of nutritionists on Tuesday said the substances had cancer-causing properties.
But Hughes said neither he nor the FDA was concerned because quantities were well below the unsafe level. Hughes said Herbalife was cooperating with the FDA, although FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young told the subcommittee that the agency is considering action against Herbalife for unfounded medical claims for its products.
Asked about previous testimony by doctors that Herbalife products sometimes induce nausea, diarrhea or constipation in consumers, Hughes said that these "transient side effects" occur in 10% to 15% of all users and usually last only a week. There are no warnings on Herbalife's labels about such occurrences, he said, because warnings are made "basically by word of mouth" through independent distributors.
"A change in anyone's diet would have the same effects," Hughes said. His testimony concluded two days of hearings by the subcommittee into weight-reduction products and devices being sold by mail or through multilevel marketing plans.