WASHINGTON -- Executives with companies selling everything from energy drinks to weight-loss pills made from African mango-seed extracts are among the ranks of Republican Mitt Romney's top fundraisers, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
Overall, individuals and companies with ties to the nutritional and dietary supplement industry have poured more than $4.5 million into campaign accounts benefiting Romney's presidential ambitions, federal records show. The spending comes as the industry is at odds with the Food and Drug Administration over proposed rules that would govern the use of new dietary ingredients.
Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, supplement makers long have been exempted from federal review of their products for safety or effectiveness before being marketed. "It is a very loosely regulated industry," said David Schardt, a senior nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group advocates for food and nutrition safety.
"It is viewed as a Wild West arena, where virtually anything goes," he said.
Romney has refused to release a comprehensive list of his top fundraisers - bucking a practice that goes back to the 2000 presidential election.
By contrast, President Obama has disclosed the names of 532 people who raised at least $50,000 for his re-election.
In recent weeks, USA TODAY compiled a list of roughly 1,200 individuals helping Romney collect campaign cash by reviewing campaign news releases, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records, invitations obtained by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation and news accounts.
Industry figures aiding Romney include:
•Rex Maughan, the CEO of Forever Living and his wife, Ruth, of Paradise Valley, Ariz., listed as members of Romney's "Arizona finance committee" in a September campaign news release. The Maughans and employees of the company, whose products include aloe vera drinks and gels, have donated more than $102,000 to Romney and his joint fundraising efforts with the Republican Party, FEC records show.
•Miguel Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners, a Florida private-equity firm whose portfolio includes supplement manufacturer Nutriforce Nutrition. Last year, he donated $500,000 to a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future. Another $500,000 came from MBF Family Investments, which shares an address with his company.
•Executives with Utah-based supplement companies. They include David Lisonbee, CEO of 4Life Research, who gave $500,000 to the super PAC this year; and Steve Lund, co-founder of Nu Skin Enterprises, a Provo, Utah, nutrition and skin-care company. Eli Publishing and F8 LLC, which share a Provo address, donated $1 million each to the super PAC. State records list Lund as Eli Publishing's registered agent.
•Others in the industry have helped host fundraising events for Romney, such as Daryl Allen, a distributor for USANA, which sells vitamins and weight-loss aids. She and her husband, Robert, were listed among the "San Diego chairs" for a September breakfast reception for Romney at diet guru Jenny Craig's Del Mar, Calif., home.
Frank VanderSloot, who heads an Idaho-based supplement and wellness firm and is a Romney fundraiser, said his support for the former Massachusetts governor "has nothing to do with the kind of business we are in. It has to do with the fact that we are in business."
VanderSloot, who sits on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, said Obama "is far off base in his understanding of what creates a healthy economy." VanderSloot has donated more than $1.1 million to Romney and Restore Our Future.
In a statement, Lisonbee of 4Life Research said Romney's track record in business "is encouraging for entrepreneurs." The company's president, Steve Tew, emphasized that the donation was a personal contribution from Lisonbee and reflects neither the company's nor industry's political views.
Nu Skin's Sydnee Fox said Lund's contribution was personal and separate from company business.
Fernandez was unavailable, an aide said. Other executives did not return calls.
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg provided the campaign's standard response to inquiries about donors: "People who support Mitt Romney do so because they support his pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda for the country."
Several of Romney's backers distribute their products through direct sales instead of retail stores. Direct sellers "tend to be very entrepreneurial," possibly explaining their support for a Republican, said Steve Mister, who heads the industry's Council for Responsible Nutrition.
Indeed, more than two-thirds of the industry's contributions to federal candidates' main campaign accounts have gone to Republicans so far in this election, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.
Mister said his group supports both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who understand the industry and has taken no position on the presidential race.
The industry also has long roots in Utah, where Salt Lake City native and herbalist John Christopher established a School of Natural Healing in the 1950s. Today, Utah's supplement industry is a powerful economic force with $7.1 billion in annual revenues, said Loren Israelsen, a Utah resident and executive director of the United Natural Products Alliance.
Romney is an adopted son of the Beehive State, where he ran the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002 and has drawn substantial financial support from the state's fellow Mormons.
Supplement trade groups say they are well regulated. Rules adopted in 2007 now require manufacturers to report serious illnesses linked to their products; the FDA began plant inspections in 2008 to enforce new rules on how supplements are made.
The industry now is pushing the FDA to rescind what it claims are overly broad regulations proposed last year on new supplement ingredients. The proposal seeks to comply with a 1994 law that declared anything already sold as a supplement was considered safe, but said new ingredients introduced after that date would be subject to FDA scrutiny before being marketed.
"We have to have a certain amount of regulation to give consumers the confidence that the products are safe," Mister said. But the new proposal "would have a crippling effect on innovation."