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Letter From the Editor: Time for Supplements

When Food Safety News began, back in the wee hours of the Obama administration, our plan was to plow deep in the fields that directly involved food safety, but to consciously avoid distractions into other areas that might be just tangentially related. This is harder for journalists to do than you might think. It means we’ve wanted to have a clear food safety rationale for any story we cover, even if it is not always obvious or stated every time.

Until very recently, we did not do much with dietary supplements. It seemed clear enough. The idea was that they are not “conventional food” and are regulated in a distinctly different manner, just as drugs are from food. However, we’ve had to change up our menu regarding supplements.

We’ve come to understand that our readers depend on us to tell them when there is something harmful out there. So just as we’ve put our antenna up on pet food, we’ve been wandering into the world of supplements, too. For one thing, it’s hard to ignore reports like the one last October when a panel of international scientists said a chemical compound similar to illegal methamphetamine was being used in the body-building diet supplement sold as “Craze.”

And there was more — indeed, case-closed, definitive evidence — last year that the whole vitamin and mineral industry in the U.S., with its $28 billion in annual sales, is pure bunk and complete, wholesale quackery. More than half of American adults are taking these products that both the Annals of Internal Medicine and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force have found to be worthless.

I am sure everybody is aware of the reports we’ve had about these so-called “energy” drinks. Anything being ingested that is tied to deaths is likely to get our attention.

So we’ve been going to school on supplements. You may have noticed that there is no “S” in FDA. There’s a long history of why FDA’s regulatory power over supplements is far weaker than it should be, which I’ll cover at another time.

The important thing to know is that today only the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) bothers the supplemental pill and powder mills. That’s because FTC can, and does, bring charges of deceptive advertising against these quacks.

One caught my eye this past week. Two companies – one called Genelink and the other “foru” – were included in settlements with FTC that prohibit them from making health claims. Genelink was apparently offering a genetically modified skin product that went through the hocus-pocus of taking mouth swabs. So it got me thinking about how much genetic engineering might be going on with supplements.

Where do all those powdered supplements come from? What is their origin and processes? Where do meth substitutes come from? I think we have a “right to know!”

For the past couple of congressional sessions, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking member of the U.S. Senate, has had a bill ready to plug this gap in the federal regulatory hole. It’s called S. 1425, and it would require supplement makers to register their pills and powders with FDA and amend labeling requirements.

More important, FDA would be empowered to have the ingredients and proprietary blends of ingredients evaluated by the Institute of Medicine. In turn, it would be charged with deciding which ingredients “could cause potentially serious adverse events, drug interactions, or contraindications, or potential risks to subgroups such as children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.”

If Durbin can’t move S. 1425 soon, he might amend it to do more independent studies of supplements and then publish the results in a consumer-friendly manner. As it stands now, all forms of diet and other scams run their course before FTC gets them, and many just change their names and start over again.

It won’t always be our job to tell you which supplements are worthless, although it appears many are just that. When meth-like substitutes are showing up and deaths are attributed to energy drinks, we’re interested. Why does the regulatory system tread so lightly on supplements? Why is the organic industry, at least at the retail level, so connected with these charlatans?

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