Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Making the “Cut”: What the Latest Recall Tells us … and Doesn’t

By James J. Gormley

So we’ve all read the headlines about the recent recall of a line of 14 dietary supplements due to 23 reports of serious adverse events linked to (but not proved to caused by) the weight-loss and bodybuilding products in question.

The product recall that was requested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been applauded by the natural products industry, as it shows how effective are the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) and the AER Law.

If truth be told, the manufacturer should have known better, regardless of where the final toxicology reports or class action lawsuits wind up, since a number of the recalled products were made with a modern version of the dangerous old “ECA stack” formula (ephedra-caffeine-aspirin, or ECA), with each serving containing stimulant herbs, over 400 mg of caffeine plus willow bark extract (natural aspirin).

That being said, the FDA, long believed to be a foe of the dietary supplements industry, is taking advantage of the recall to repeat its oft-voiced complaint that its hands are largely tied because it must rely on voluntary reports and post-market monitoring. “Part of the problem is that the FDA looks at dietary supplements from a post-market perspective and an isolated incident is often difficult to follow,” said the FDA’s Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H.

Katz and the mainstream media are missing the point.

Dietary supplements, because they are a class of food products, are considered largely safe. Food products, and products derived from foods and plants, are presumed to be benign and have very little, often no known, side effects.

The ingredients in supplements are mainly natural ingredients that have co-evolved with humans from time immemorial and especially since the creation of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
They form what ethnobotanist Dr. Jim Duke refers to as the “Green Pharmacy” of healing and healthful compounds. When not used properly or used by profoundly unhealthy, often heavily medicated consumers looking for a quick fix, they are linked to a few hundred adverse event reports each year.

Drugs are largely synthetic, powerful chemical compounds that are not found in the food supply and which are presumed to be dangerous and often have very serious, known side effects.
Drug chemicals are primarily artificial compounds synthesized to dramatically change, stop, block or boost a system or process in the body in order to improve symptoms. They cause over 100,000 deaths a year and close to 1 million serious adverse events.

“Dietary supplements are not regulated as drugs because they are not drugs,” adds Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, FACN, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, at Tufts University.

According to David Seckman of the Natural Products Association (NPA), “This prompt action shows that the current DSHEA [law] works and that the adverse event reporting (AER) law that we helped to pass is working to enable the agencies to detect signals of any threat to public health. Thus, the industry is more than appropriately regulated and necessary consumer protections are in place.”

“They are regulated in exactly the same manner as all food and beverage products, including review of labeling claims, [post-market] surveillance, adverse event reporting, and so forth” agreed Blumberg. “The research base regarding most essential nutrients is more extensive than that of most drugs.”

Gormley Take-Away: DSHEA and the AER Law work very well. The FDA should cooperate with the responsible core of the natural products industry rather than criticizing the very laws that the American people saw fit to pass and which the FDA is sworn to uphold and enforce. While consumers should not be scared about this rare product recall, some manufacturers (and these few companies know who they are) should take a hard look at their products and their safety and testing data to make sure they are not repeating mistakes of the past relating to formulas and claims, because nobody benefits from inadequate vigilance, the companies included.
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