How the Internet Fueled and Defeated the Pandemic’s Strangest MLM

In recent months, groups have seen an increase in the numbers of members of the anti-vaccine and Covid denial communities, including leading activists who sell the product to raise money for anti-vaccine efforts.

A profile of one of the best sellers presented in the BOOs semi-regular glossy magazine, “The Bog,” noted that Covid had drawn more people to the industry.

“It was kind of a blessing,” the seller said.

While it undoubtedly attracted sales and built teams, Facebook also created a unique problem for Black Oxygen Organics: These testimonials may have violated federal law which requires efficacy claims to be supported by “evidence. competent and reliable scientists ”. They have also caught the attention of not only customers, but also medical professionals, regulators and a group that BOO executives have dubbed “the enemies.”

After a summer of frenzied success, the internet backlash has begun.

The rise of online MLMs has drawn criticism from some people who have formed informal activist groups to raise awareness of what they say are the predatory practices of MLM companies and organized campaigns to disrupt specific businesses. Many groups use the same social media techniques to organize their responses.

Online activists who oppose MLM have formed Facebook groups targeting BOO for its demands. Members of these groups infiltrated the BOO community, signing up as sellers, joining pro-BOO groups and attending BOO sales meetings, then reporting what they saw to the group. They posted videos of company meetings and screenshots of private BOO sales groups and urged members to file formal complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

YouTube creators made videos demystify The most scandalous claims by BOO hawkers, ridiculing BOO executives and making public recordings of private company meetings.

Ceara Manchester.Courtesy of Ceara Manchester

Ceara Manchester, a stay-at-home mom in Pompano Beach, Fla., Helps run one of the biggest anti-BOO Facebook groups, “Boo is Woo.” Manchester, 34, has spent the past four years monitoring predatory MLMs – or “cults,” in his opinion – and posting on several social media accounts and groups dedicated to “exposing” Black Oxygen Organics.

“Health claims, I’ve never seen them so bad,” Manchester said. “Just the amount. Each post was like “cancer, Covid, diabetes, autism”.

“I don’t think people are stupid,” Manchester said of the people who have bought and even sold BOO. “I think they’re desperate or vulnerable, or they’ve been the prey, and someone’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this cure-all product.’ You know, when you’re desperate like that, you can listen.

The mud man

Black Oxygen Organics is the brainchild of Marc Saint-Onge, a 59-year-old entrepreneur from Casselman, Ontario. Saint-Onge, founder and CEO of BOO, did not respond to calls, texts, emails or direct messages.

But decades of interviews in the local press and more recently on social media provide some details about Saint-Onge, or, as he likes to be called, “the mud man”.

Saint-Onge describes himself as an orthotherapist, naturopath, physiotherapist, reiki master, holistic practitioner, herbalist and aromatherapist. As he said in a video posted to YouTube which has since been made private, his love of mud began as a child, hunting bullfrogs in the bogs of Ontario. Years later, he practiced orthotherapy, a kind of advanced massage technique, to treat pain. He said he packed dirt from a local bog, branches and leaves included, in zippered bags and gave them to his “patients”, who demanded the mud faster than he could. pick it up.

Saint-Onge said he was charged by Canadian authorities with practicing medicine without a license in 1989 and fined $ 20,000.

“Then my clinic went underground” he said on a recent podcast.

He’s been selling mud in one form or another since the early 1990s. Health Canada, the government regulator responsible for public health, forced it to withdraw an early version of its mud product, then called the “anti-rheumatic bath,” according to a 1996 Calgary Herald article, because St. Onge marketed it to treat arthritis. and rheumatism without any evidence to support the claims. Saint-Onge also claimed that his mud could heal wounds, telling an Ottawa Citizen reporter in 2012 that his mud compress healed the leg of a man who had suffered an accident with a power saw, the preventing it from being amputated.

“The doctor said it was the antibiotics,” he said. “But we think it was mud.”

In the 90s, Saint-Onge started selling his mud bath under the label “Golden Moor”, which he did until he fulfilled a dream, “a way to do a little secret extraction. “, in his words, it would dissolve the dirt in the water. In 2015, with the founding of his company NuWTR, which would later become Black Oxygen Organics, Saint-Onge said he had finally invented dirt that people could drink.

In 2016, he started selling himself as a business coach, and his personal website boasted of its value: “I sell bottled mud,” he wrote. “Let me teach you how to sell anything. ”

Troubles

In September, Montaruli, vice-president of BOO, conducted a business call to address Facebook groups and what he called “the compliance situation”.

“At the moment it’s scary,” Montaruli said in a publicly released Zoom appeal, referring to the outlandish claims made by some of BOO’s salespeople. “In 21 years, I have never seen anything like it. Never.”

“These outrageous claims, and I’m not even sure they’re scandalous enough, obviously attract enemies, giving them more fuel for the fire and potential government officials.”

Montaruli called for “a reset,” telling BOO sellers to delete pages and groups and start over.

One slide suggested alternatives for 14 popular uses for BOO, including replacing terms like ADHD with “trouble concentrating” and “preventing heart attacks” to “maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system”.

A common strategy for MLM participants, including BOO salespeople, is to create Facebook groups to collaborate and attract new customers.Obtained by NBC News

And so, in September, Facebook groups evolved – many went private, most changed their names from BOO to “fulvic acid,” and pinned customer testimonials claiming miracle cures were erased, changed or amended to add a disclaimer releasing the company from all liability.

But that wasn’t the end of the company’s troubles. As individual sellers navigated their new waters of compliance, regulators cracked down.

A few days after Montaruli’s call, Health Canada announced a recall of Black Oxygen Organics tablets and powders, citing “potential health risks that may be higher for children, adolescents, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.” Further, the regulatory agency noted that “the products are being promoted in ways and for uses that have not been evaluated and authorized by Health Canada.”

“Stop taking these products,” the ad advised.

Inventory for US customers was already hard to come by. In private groups, sellers claimed the product was out of stock, but during the company-wide appeal, Montaruli confirmed that the US Food and Drug Administration was holding its products at the border.

Jeremy Kahn, an FDA spokesperson, declined to comment.

Saint-Onge did not respond to NBC News requests for comment. Phone messages and emails sent by a journalist to the company, its executives and legal advisers were not returned.

What’s in BOO?

BOO isn’t the only dirt-like health supplement on the market. Consumers have dozens of products to choose from – in drops, tablets, powders and pastes – that claim to provide the healing power of fulvic and humic acid.

Fulvic and humic acids have been used in traditional and folk medicine for centuries and exhibit antibacterial qualities in large quantities. But there is little scientific evidence to back up the kind of claims BOO sellers make, according to Brian Bennett, a physics professor at Marquette University who has studied fulvic and humic acids as a biochemist.

“I would say it’s snake oil,” Bennett said. “There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that a pharmaceutical based on the characteristics of this material might actually work, but I think eating handfuls of dirt probably doesn’t work.”

Beyond questions about the health benefits of fulvic acid, there is the question of what is in Black Oxygen Organics’ product.

The company’s most recent Certificate of Analysis, a document meant to show what a product is made of and in what quantities, was released by sellers this year. Reporting the composition of the product as being mainly fulvic acid and vitamin C, the report dates from 2017 and does not list a laboratory, or even a specific test. NBC News spoke to six environmental scientists, each of whom expressed skepticism about the quality of BOO’s certificate.

Assuming the analysis the company provided was correct, two of the scientists confirmed that only two servings of BOO exceeded Health Canada’s daily limits for lead, and three servings – a dose recommended on the package – approached the daily arsenic limits. The United States Food and Drug Administration does not have comparable daily guidelines.

In order to verify BOO’s analysis, NBC News purchased a bag and sent it to Nicholas Basta, professor of soil and environmental science at Ohio State University.

The BOO product was tested for the presence of heavy metals at the Ohio State Trace Element Research Laboratory. The results of this test were similar to the company’s 2017 certificate, revealing that two doses per day exceeded Health Canada’s limit for lead and three doses for daily amounts of arsenic.

The growing concern of BOO sellers about the product – precipitated by an anti-MLM activist who noticed on Google Earth that the bog that produced BOO’s peat appeared to share a border with a landfill – prompted many to take the matter. in hand, sending bags of BOO to labs for testing.

The results of three of these tests, seen by NBC News and confirmed as apparently reliable by two soil scientists at American universities, again showed high levels of lead and arsenic.

These findings form the backbone of a federal lawsuit seeking class-action status filed in November in the Northern District Court of Georgia. The complaint, on behalf of four Georgia residents who purchased BOO, claims the company negligently sold a product containing “dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals,” resulting in physical and economic damage.

Black Oxygen Organics did not respond to requests for comment regarding the complaint.


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