While assisting Erin with her report on the China Food and Drug Administration’s (CFDA) crackdown on vampire cafés, I contacted two websites featured in her article: Alibaba.com and Harcos Labs. The latter, based in California, sells a product called “Blood Energy Potion”, which has been linked to the “vampire drinks” sold in the Chinese vampire cafés. Alibaba.com, run by the Alibaba Group, is a global distributor mainly based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
I wanted to know whether either company had any awareness of the distribution of the drink, in light of the CFDA’s crackdowns. Erin “wondered whether the product was being manufactured locally or imported from somewhere else”—especially as the links made between the “Blood Energy Potion” and what was actually being sold in the cafés suggested someone was ripping off Harcos Labs’ product.
The company’s spokesperson’s denied awareness of its drink being sold in China, courtesy of Chris Luo’s “‘Vampire Drinks’ Banned by China’s Food Safety Authority,” South China Morning Post (Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 5:53pm; Updated: July 16, 2014, 12:28pm):
But a spokeswoman from Harcos denied the company is aware of the drink and its similar products are sold in China. “We do not directly sell our products to any companies in China nor have we authorized any agencies to sell the product,” she wrote in an email reply to South China Morning Post.
In addition, she said “the energy drinks are tested and approved by the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration].”
“Imported beverages without prior examinations and permissions from food safety authorities are illegal … regardless whether they are legitimate to sell in other countries,” a director of the Shanghai Food Research Institute said in a telephone interview.
I also found it quite odd that Harcos Labs would have no awareness of the product’s distribution in China, considering not only was its product freely available on sites like Alibaba.com, but also the machinery used to package them, too—not to mention the media attention it garnered. So, I decided to probe the matter further. I filled out a “General Product Inquiry” on Harcos Labs’ website on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 1:14 pm:
My name is Anthony Hogg. I run a vampire-themed website called, “Vamped.”
I have two questions relating to your vampire product, “Blood Energy Potion.” The first questions is in regards to the CFDA’s recent actions on “vampire” drinks, and a denial by your spokesperson via the South China Morning Post:
“We do not directly sell our products to any companies in China nor have we authorized any agencies to sell the product” and “the energy drinks are tested and approved by the FDA”
My question is, are you aware of Alibaba.com, a Chinese distributor which features products seemingly identical to yours, if they’re not the same products?
Second, since the “vampire cafe” story went viral earlier this month, how have your sales been affected?
Later, I contacted Alibaba Group’s International Media Contact, Florence Shih:
From: Anthony Hogg (email@example.com)
Sent: Thursday, 17 July 2014 7:17:05 AM
To: firstname.lastname@example.org (email@example.com)
My name is Anthony Hogg. I run a vampire-themed website called Vamped. I have a question for your company.
According to a spokesperson for Harcos Labs, California, “We do not directly sell our products to any companies in China nor have we authorized any agencies to sell the product” and “the energy drinks are tested and approved by the FDA”, as reported by the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1554772/vampire-drinks-banned-chinas-food-safety-authority
However, your company’s website lists “blood energy potions” and the machinery used to package and cap the bags they’re sold in. Was the spokesperson mistaken? Do you have any affiliation, connection or deal with Harcos Labs, California, to distribute this product in China?
The products I refer to are these:
This is Harcos Labs’ product:
By the time my message arrived at Harcos Labs, they’d obviously heard of their product’s distribution. Here’s their reply, which I’ve been given permission to reproduce here:
From: [e-mail redacted] Sent: Friday, 18 July 2014 8:09:41 AM
Hi Anthony,We are aware of what is going on in China. Per the newspaper, “The administration issued the ban saying the drinks posed considerable food safety concerns due to the lack of permits or labelling information. What it’s saying is the drinks did not undergo CFDA’s tests before vendors put them on market, as Chinese laws stipulate imported beverages without prior examinations and permissions from China’s own food safety authorities are illegal to sell regardless whether they are legitimate to sell in other countries.”
Our products are not the issues, the issue is that the product is not tested by China’s FDA. So technically, China is saying the product is illegal. It would be like the US bringing over a product with ingredients that are not approved by our FDA.
Yes, I am aware of Alibaba. The trouble with the internet is that customers can purchase products from us and go resell them in any country that they’d like. We have no legal document or verbal or written agreement between any company from China to sell our products. All international sales are done through a third party so we are also not aware of what gets sold to China. Also, for example, we could sell a product to the customer in the US, who then acts like a distributor and goes to resell the product to a customer in China. Unfortunately, there are a lot of hands our products could go through to get to China. Oh…and there is Amazon. Our customers sell on there so we have no idea once we sell a product to a customer, who then goes to sell it on Amazon, where that product goes. So, the product on Alibaba might be our product.
A great real life story about the Blood has to do with Australia and a customer there. I worked for 1 year with an FDA consultant in Australia and the customer to come up with an approved label for our Blood potion. Australia limits the amount of caffeine in beverages and we needed to rewrite the label to say the product needed to be diluted. Also, about 2 years ago, we removed a lot of “extra” ingredients in the Blood to make it legal for consumption in Norway. Norway sees products that have B vitamins in them as a pharmaceutical – not the practice of the US.
Our sales have not changed since the article has come out.
I would like to work with China’s FDA to try to get the problem solved. The product is a good one and I think the packaging is awesome!
Hope this helps and let me know if you’d like more info!
By that point, Alibaba’s legal team had also written back to me (Thursday, 17 July 2014 9:45:15 PM) though didn’t grant me explicit permission to reproduce their response, in full, but I can tell you that it echoed Harcos Labs’ e-mail in the sense that they did not control over who distributed their product: “We also do not take part in the productions, sales and transactions of goods posted on our online platforms and we do not have a general duty to police product listings posted by our individual members.”
They also directed me to their intellectual property infringement page, “via our online system AliProtect®”. When I probed them on posting their full response, they said I could “refer to our Intellectual Property Rights Protection Policy (http://www.alibaba.com/help/safety_security/policies_rules/IPR/003.html) for your information and your linkage.” (Monday, 21 July 2014 6:44:54 PM) As of this writing, the machinery for packaging the product is still available on Alibaba.com.
However, a picture of Harcos Labs’ “Blood Energy Potion 6 Pack” used in an Alibaba.com listing for a “Medical Disposable blood bag” has since been changed.
The update in Luo’s South China Morning Post article also mentioned “Despite the ban, the “vampire drinks” were still available in dozens of small vendors as of 12pm today on popular shopping site Taobao.com.” As of this writing, Harcos Labs’ “Blood Energy Potion”—and its “Zombie Blood Energy Potion”, for that matter—are still available on the website.
Taobao.com is actually one of the Alibaba Group’s businesses. As Wikipedia elaborates, “Founded by Alibaba Group on May 10, 2003, Taobao Marketplace facilitates consumer-to-consumer (C2C) retail by providing a platform for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs to open online stores that mainly cater to consumers in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.”
Despite the presence of the drink in these marketplaces, the responses from Harcos Labs and Alibaba Group’s legal department make it clear that their distribution falls on consumers, not them. Their presence in China’s vampire cafés have been negated by photographs featured in various articles, clearly illustrating that the drink consumed in the cafés is clearly not Harcos Labs’ product—or, at least, not in the same packaging, suggesting a local manufacturer and distributor was “inspired” by Harcos Labs’ product and sought to make their own.
Indeed, Alyssa Abkowitz notes the following in her article, “China’s Government Takes Bite Out of Vampire ‘Blood’ Beverages,” China Real Time (July 18, 2014): “It’s not just China, either: In the Hongdae area of Seoul near Hongik University, cocktails and juices are served in clear bags with IV-like straws.” The bags pictured in the article are almost identical to the ones seen in photos of “vampire drinks” consumed in the cafés.
The flavour of these products is another giveaway. According to a review of the “Blood Energy Potion” on Geekologie (October 22, 2009), “it was good. It’s thick and tastes like Hawaiian Punch concentrate.” The drinks sold in the vampire cafés tend to have much more diverse flavours.
As Chris Perez recounts in “‘Vampire’ Coffee House Offers Drinks in Blood Bags,” New York Post (July 1, 2014): “Servers dressed as doctors and nurses serve wannabe bloodsuckers red colored beverages such as red wine, cherry cola, and blackcurrant juice in pouches titled Blood Type Energy Supply, Europics reports.” He adds, “Drinks that don’t look like blood such as coffee, mineral water, or other colored fruit juices are stained red before being transfused to the bags.”
But if they were merely red-coloured drinks served in blood bags, what was the CFDA’s problem? The “Blood Energy Supply Type” is the key and the answer seems to be in a certain other type of drink served, as recounted in Spooky’s “Drinking Blood Bags – The Latest Vampire Craze in China,” Oddity Central (July 4, 2014):
The “B-type blood energy potion” is another popular blood bag drink that can be purchased online in China. Its makers decided to go one step further and make the drink as blood-like as possible. Advertised as ”the world’s first blood substitute beverage”, the red concoction apparently ”has the same texture, color and nutrients as blood but it doesn’t taste like blood.”
The list of ingredients on the bag say the energy potion contains sodium, potassium, iron, protein, carbohydrates, and just about everything else a young vampire needs to stay in great shape. For customers who are too freaked out by the resemblance to blood, the drinks come in different colors like blue, yellow or orange.
Interestingly, Spooky’s article also features two pictures of Harcos Labs’ “Blood Energy Potion”, postmarked “Chinanews.com” and “www.homeof.me”. The reference to “B-type blood energy potion” seemingly reflects the prominent “B” type featured on the product.
Its blood-like nature is reflected in claims made about it a few years ago, as covered in “Not Just For Vampires: Blood Energy Drink,” Geekologie (September 28, 2009): “Blood Energy Potion is a $6 energy drink (availableJanuary 2010) that was made to look — and have the same nutritional value — of real blood.” It even promotes a nutritional value, as the quote accompanying the article reveals:
The fruit punch flavor packs 4 hours of energy along with iron, protein, and electrolytes. Not only does Blood Energy Potion have a similar nutritional makeup to real blood, but it has the same color, look, and consistency of blood. Get real blood nutrients without that real blood taste! The re-sealable transfusion bag style pouch provides the convenient delivery of fluids for vampires and humans alike! Contains no real blood, just synthetic!
A big call and certainly worthy of pursuit by the CFDA, especially as earlier articles about the product—like “Harcos’ Blood Energy Potion Gives New Hope to Those Afflicted with Bloodlust,” BusinessWire (October 20, 2009)—make claims like the following:
“If you’re suffering from Bloodlust, it’s important to remember that you are not alone,” said Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder and vice president of marketing, Harcos. “We created Blood Energy Potion to help control the symptoms of Bloodlust so you can get back to your non-life without worrying about the fate of your loved ones when those hunger pangs strike.”
Adding, “Packed with iron, protein and electrolytes, the fruit punch-flavored potion provides up to four hours of energy”, but amend the release with “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.”
Update: September 3, 2014
I’ve removed Natalie’s e-mail address from her reply to me on her request (to avoid spam abuse). After she made the request, I asked her a follow-up question: “has the drink since been approved by the CFDA – or the US FDA, for that matter?” (Friday, 29 August 2014 5:43:46 PM) She wrote back, “We have not been contacted by anyone in China so not sure if it has been approved” (Saturday, 30 August 2014 12:53:20 AM), adding:
In regards to the FDA, our label for all of our products and ingredients are approved by an FDA consultant. This means that all the ingredients we use are FDA compliant and approved for use in the US. Our manufacturing facility is also certified by various groups and agencies. Plus, our beverages are tested after they are made.
More of the concern in the US with energy drinks is the ingredients and the controversy that they cause if too many are consumed. As a health professional, I feel they problem with US made energy drinks lies in the large doses of caffeine mixed with other stimulants like guarna, green tea, ginseng, yerba mate, and ginko. See http://www.caffeineinformer.com/energy-drink-ingredients. Many of these ingredients are herbs, which are not regulated by the FDA or studied in the quantities that are in a lot of energy drinks. Our Blood is pretty simple – water, sugar, caffeine, and a few special ingredients from the blood of young virgins. 🙂 We have a statement not to consume more than 2 drinks in one day.
Her reply has been reproduced with permission—and I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her friendliness, openness and co-operation with Vamped. Thank you, Natalie!