USA Today urges greater regulatory oversight of dietary supplements

In an editorial, USA Today urges greater oversight over the dietary supplement industry, pointing out the FDA has found at least 123 companies “that have sold products spiked with drugs or harmful additives.” In support of its stand, the paper says the that “out of 100 of these companies” investigated by the paper in a report this month, “at least 14 were being run by people with criminal records.”

The paper says, “The truth is, tighter scrutiny would expose a dirty little secret in the industry. Even products made by reputable companies – though they might be safe and untainted – are often of dubious merit.”

USA Today writes:

Under a 1994 federal law, dietary supplements are treated like food, assumed to be all natural and safe until proved otherwise. Producers are not required to demonstrate the safety or effectiveness of a product before it is put on the market. And the FDA must show that a product is unsafe before it can take any action.

Making matters worse, the supplement industry seems to lend itself to wild claims. The industry — by portraying its products as alternatives to medicine controlled by big pharmaceutical companies, self-interested doctors and large corporate interests — attempts to set itself apart from rigorous science and testing.

In many ways, the supplement business is the 21st century incarnation of the elixir purveyors of bygone eras. In the 19th century, a snake oil salesman might peddle his wares by capitalizing on people’s ignorance of medicine. Today’s supplement industry capitalizes on their suspicion of it.

One useful approach to cleaning up the industry is offered by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Their bill would improve labeling while giving the FDA more authority to require manufacturers to register their products and ingredients, and to provide proof of any health claims.

If anything, the proposal is on the weak side, as it would not involve any kind of pre-approval process. But even this modest step is running into fierce opposition.

For the time being, however, the government’s limited resources are best focused on getting the harmful or adulterated products off the shelf — and getting the bad actors out of the business.

In an opposing view published in USA Today, Steve Mister, CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for the dietary supplement industry, argues that adding more “bureaucratic layers to what are already ample laws does not solve the problem.” He lays the blame on “fringe companies” that tarnish the image of the industry, while noting that “more aggressive enforcement by FDA would be welcomed by most in this industry.” Mister says, “That means giving FDA more resources, manpower and political incentives to purge the criminal elements and educate consumers how to navigate the supplement aisle so they avoid the fringe elements.”

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