The Supplement Industry's Hypocrisy | Commentary

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin’s bill to require the makers of dietary supplements to label their products accurately has the industry up in arms. This is rank hypocrisy. The supplement industry, along with the organic food lobby, does support labeling — but only when the products in question belong to competitors such as the producers of foods from genetically engineered plants, a situation in which the labels serve no useful purpose.

The nongovernmental organization Citizens for Health calls itself a consumer action group, but it appears to serve as the litigation arm of the supplement industry. Headed by two lawyers, the group says its mission is to work toward “increased value being placed on holistic healing modalities that offer Americans options over and above those controlled by managed care and ‘curated’ by the medical establishment.” Their wacky list of safety goals includes “organic foods free of pesticides and [genetically engineered organisms],” removal of “toxic chemicals” from bottles, cans and children’s toys and “expanded access to cutting-edge dietary supplements.” Naturally, they are fighting the Durbin bill.

Citizens for Health is also opposed to a lot of things that they think are “threats to our well-being,” which include “over-vaccinating,” “mercury dental fillings” and “artificial sweeteners.” You can guess where this is going — a place where spurious, self-serving litigation and lobbying intersect with airy-fairy, chemical-free-organic-back-to-nature fringe activism.

If this group were being honest about safety, supplement labeling would be at the top of its to-do list. The herbal supplements it pushes on the unsuspecting public often pose significant risks to health. As the Food and Drug Administration warns, “Be aware that the term natural doesn’t always mean safe,” and “bleeding is a potential side effect risk of garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and vitamin E. In addition, kava and valerian act as sedatives and can increase the effects of anesthetics and other medications used during surgery.” Other known side effects of herbal supplements include hypertension, deadly allergic reactions, irregular heart rhythms, kidney and liver failure, exacerbation of autoimmune disease and interference with lifesaving prescription drugs. St. John’s wort, which is commonly used for its slight efficacy as an antidepressant, can interact adversely with dozens of prescription drugs. It has caused life-threatening side effects such as rejection of heart transplants (caused by an interaction with the immunosuppressant cyclosporine) and treatment failure in AIDS patients (because of interference with the protease inhibitor indinavir).

Potentially harmful interactions with “real” drugs become exponentially more difficult to predict as the number of medications (and pseudo-medications) increases. The American Society of Anesthesiologists warns patients to stop taking herbal supplements at least two weeks before surgery to avoid dangerous interactions with anesthesia.

Meanwhile, the genetically engineered foods the supplement industry wants to eliminate from the marketplace actually improve nutrition and safety. Genetic engineering’s higher yields and lower production costs have resulted in higher farm income, enhanced supplies of food and feed products, and more readily available high-quality calories. This is particularly important in developing countries where income levels are lowest but per-acre benefits from planting genetically engineered varieties have been greatest.

Genetic engineering technology offers food with health benefits, too. Widespread use of corn modified to be insect-resistant has dramatically reduced the carcinogenic mycotoxins found in organically grown corn, and “Golden Rice” varieties fortified with the precursor of vitamin A can save millions of children in the developing world from blindness and early death. Unlike supplements, the genetic engineering of plants has not given rise to even one adverse effect on human health or the environment in the more than 15 years foods derived from them have been grown and consumed around the world.

The supplement industry got a pass to sell their unsafe, dangerous, ineffective products in 1994, when Congress virtually exempted supplements from oversight in a law that bars federal authorities from requiring herbal remedies to be safe or effective, or even that dosage information on the label is accurate. Moreover, in 1999 the FDA freed manufacturers to make all sorts of dubious health claims. As the FDA makes clear in its FAQS on dietary supplements, with few exceptions, “there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products.” The FDA also warns, “Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to ‘approve’ dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer.”

Nevertheless, Citizens for Health has the temerity to call Durbin’s bill — which would require labeling of these substances — “dangerous.”

Citizens for Health is typical of groups that lobby for public policies that favor their self-interest at the expense of the public interest. In the process, they misinform and mislead consumers. Their hypocrisy says all that consumers — and legislators — need to know about the group’s credibility and real agenda.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.