The jack-booted thugs of the supplement industry

Continuing our look at dietary supplements, John Oliver has a quite intensive segment on the industry and its benefactors in Washington, DC (Senators Harkin and Hatch come to mind), bought and paid for by lots of lobbying dollars.

I was working in the Senate in 1993 when the supplement-crazies went nuts over proposed new federal regulations requiring supplements to, among other things, be able to prove that they were safe.

Yes, suggesting that something be “safe” before you sell it the public for their consumption, is a very controversial topic in Washington, DC.

supplements-hatch-harkinThe supplement industry got a groundswell of people calling Congress. I didn’t even work on the issue, and they were calling me. Non-stop. And it worked.

I remember at the time not feeling terribly sympathetic to the supplement industry. Personally, I like the idea of the government making sure that before someone can sell me food, it has to be proven to be, you know, actual food. Something that won’t kill me.

In the segment, Oliver cites a NYT story from 2010 showing that supplements often don’t even contain what they claim to contain.

Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice….

Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort, which studies have shown may treat mild depression, contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative. Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.

Of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place.

The NYT found a number of concerns about fish-oil labeling as well.

Even more troubling reporting from the NYT:

Critics of the $32 billion a year supplement industry argue that the F.D.A. is hampered by a federal law that, they say, was written largely to protect the industry, the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.

The law, which gives companies much leeway in how they manufacture and advertise supplements, allows them to put products on the market without F.D.A. approval. As a result, the agency has little power to stop tainted products from landing on store shelves in the first place, even though research suggests that adulteration and mislabeling are widespread.

1994. That would be right after the supplement industry anschluss of Congress.

And finally, I’d reported a few months ago on all those wonderful Chinese herbs and supplements, 89% of which contained banned pesticides:

Chinese herbs purchased in China

  • 74% of the samples bought in China tested positive for pesticides.
  • 50% of the samples contained traces of three or more pesticides.
  • 40% of the samples contained the residue of pesticides that have been banned in China. The World Health Organization has classified some of the pesticides as “extremely” or “highly” hazardous.
  • 32% of the samples contained 11 to 40 pesticides each.
  • Some of the poison residue was 100 to 500 times the maximum European residue limit.

Chinese herb exports to western markets

  • 89% of the made-in-China medicinal herbs bought in western countries contained three or more kinds of pesticides.
  • 72% of the samples tested exceeded the safety levels set by European authorities. (Seven samples couldn’t be tested, so the percentage could be even higher.)
  • 47% of the samples showed residues of pesticides classified as “highly or extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization.

I’m pretty freaked about anything from China nowadays. Whether it’s dog-killing treats, or exploding watermelons.  Oh yes, didn’t you know? China had a recent problem where its watermelons were exploding like old Soviet TV sets. Apparently, farmers were overusing growth hormones, which caused the watermelons to explode:

Isn’t that special. Here’s John Oliver on the supplements (he really goes after Dr. Oz):

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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