The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have joined forces in a bid to step up their policing of fraudulent health claims for food products advertised on the Internet. The agencies have described the move as a "crackdown on unscrupulous marketers who use the Internet to prey on the sickest and most vulnerable consumers."

Coordination between the federal agencies on this scale is unusual but arguably essential, as health fraud has mushroomed with consumer access to the web.

The rather ambitiously named "Operation Cure All" has seen the delivery of dozens of warnings to companies that make unsubstantiated health claims for their products. Officials say that they are concerned that aside from the economic fraud carried out by such companies, it can also be dangerous for consumers to receive supplements or herbs that interfere with prescription drugs.

The FTC, which is leading the crackdown, has already specifically targeted six small companies which try and convince net surfers that their herbal products and dietary supplements can cure illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and diabetes. Some of the companies even sold electrical devices that they claimed would zap the disease within the body.

Officials pointed out that several of the items labelled as cures were completely ineffective, or worse, could actually exacerbate medical conditions. St John's Wort, for example, is often sold as a cure for AIDS. It may actually inhibit the process of protease inhibitors however, drugs often prescribed to treat the disease.

Of the six companies facing charges of fraud, five have agreed to change their marketing. They have also agreed to contact customers and offer them refunds on the products.