New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently launched an investigation into generic brand herbal supplements of four major retailers — GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens — and found that a majority of them did not contain the advertised herbs. Supplements that claimed to contain medicinal plants such as ginko biloba, valerian root and ginseng were found to have cheap fillers such as powdered rice, legumes and houseplants instead. However, problems with supplements are not only deceitful, but also present a large potential hazard to consumers with allergies. The Food and Drug Administration must step in.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, put into effect in 1994, classifies herbal supplements as a subcategory of food as opposed to a subcategory of drugs. The distinction is that foods are considered safe until proven unsafe, while drugs are considered unsafe until proven safe.
Under this system, manufacturers of supplements are not obligated to undergo rigorous testing before selling their new product, a problem furthered by the fact that the FDA can only stop the production of a supplement after its been proven to be a significant health risk. Because supplement manufacturers are essentially on a production honor code without supervision, the damage that a faulty product causes is unavoidable. Another problem is that the FDA can only stop a supplement from being produced after it has been proven to be a significant health risk — the opposite to how drugs are treated.
The FDA must begin to undertake a systematic audit of all available supplements on the market within a year of their release. Supplements would still be allowed to enter the market before testing because of their classification as food, but an audit would confirm their ingredients. Furthermore, companies that falsely advertise must be punished with more than a simple cease and desist. Those with disingenuous products ought to receive harsh fines of double the amount of revenue generated by the product and should have to prove that their product contains all listed ingredients before the supplement can be sold again. To curb non-compliance, producers should be forced to wait for 12 months before being allowed to put the product back on shelves for consumers to purchase.
In addition to the failure of the FDA to regulate supplements, it has also been criticized in recent weeks for omitting mention of mistakes and shortcomings in its research, which was uncovered by an NYU journalism professor and graduate students. With supplements already in a medicinal gray area, it is critical that consumers receive the best possible product so that they may make an informed decision about their health without worrying if the supplement really contains what it promises.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 18 print edition. Email Adnan Zarif at [email protected]