British Columbia

Wellness company's recalled milkshakes caused chronic vitamin overdose, B.C. sales rep claims

The one-time Canadian poster child for an American wellness and weight loss multi-level marketing business is now suing the company, claiming its unsafe products caused her to overdose on vitamins and minerals.

Multi-level marketing company Isagenix sued for negligence related to 'over-fortified' meal replacements

One of several Isagenix meal replacement shakes recalled because of a dangerously high concentration of vitamins is shown at left. At right is a before-and-after image of Chera Harris, a Kelowna, B.C., woman who claims she suffered lasting health problems because of Isagenix's products. (Health Canada/Isagenix)

The one-time Canadian poster child for an American wellness and weight loss multi-level marketing business is now suing the company, claiming its unsafe products caused her to overdose on vitamins and minerals.

Chera Harris of Kelowna, B.C., was once a prized reseller of the products marketed by Isagenix, winning a national weight loss challenge and earning well above the typically low take-home pay of most of the company's salespeople, court documents show.

But according to a civil claim filed last year, Harris "experienced a significant overall decrease in her health as a result of chronic overdose of vitamins and minerals" from eating and drinking Isagenix's meal-replacement products.

Numerous Isagenix shakes and bars were recalled by Health Canada in 2020 and 2021 because of "over-fortification" with vitamins, which caused some customers to become sick.

Harris claims she consumed these products between July 2017 and November 2020, leading to overdose symptoms that include chronic pain, abnormal heart rhythm, sleeplessness, depression and anxiety.

She alleges Isagenix was negligent and deceptive, and that it breached its duty of care to its customers.

Her lawsuit says she was "entirely reliant" on Isagenix to accurately report the level of vitamins and minerals in its products, and if she'd known they were unsafe, "she would have purchased alternative products."

In a written statement, an Isagenix spokesperson said the company does not believe its products are responsible for any health problems Harris has had.

"We believe the lawsuit is frivolous and intend to fully defend against it. Our legal team is currently reviewing the allegations and preparing an appropriate response," the statement said.

B.C. judge allows lawsuit to move forward

Isagenix has yet to file a response to Harris's claim, but the company filed an application to have the case stayed, arguing that as a sales associate, Harris had signed a contract obligating her to settle disputes through arbitration in Arizona.

That argument was rejected in B.C. Supreme Court last week, when a judge ruled that Harris was bringing her claim as an Isagenix customer, not a salesperson, and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

Isagenix calls itself a "global wellbeing company," and it operates using a multi-level marketing scheme.

This kind of company, also known as an MLM, works by using salespeople who sell directly to their friends and family. Stay-at-home moms are frequently targeted to work for MLMs, and they often have to make a significant investment in buying inventory before they can begin making any money through sales.

Salespeople can increase their earnings by recruiting and sponsoring other representatives.

Multi-level marketing companies often target stay-at-home mothers trying to earn extra cash. (S_L/Shutterstock)

Harris won $10,000 in 2019 when she was named the company's Canada grand prize winner in its "Isabody Challenge" for weight loss after losing 95 pounds. The company's CEO called her "an inspiration to our entire team" in a news release and Harris credited the company for "a whole new inspired life."

She's earned more than $35,000 as an Isagenix associate and recruited 75 new associates and "preferred customers" since she started selling the company's products in August 2017, according to Isagenix's application to stay the case.

Those earnings put her well above the typical reseller of Isagenix products.

MLMs are required by law to disclose the average earnings and range of incomes brought in by its associates.

According to Isagenix's 2020 disclosure statement, the average associate earned just US $843 — and that's before business expenses were factored in. Even among the top 10 per cent of salespeople, the median annual income was $7,427 before expenses.

Harris's claim is asking for damages including pain, suffering and lost income, punitive damages for "intentional, malicious, vexatious and dangerous" actions, as well as reimbursement of health-care costs under the Health Care Cost Recovery Act.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

now