WASHINGTON - Today U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, held a hearing on the marketing and manufacturing of dietary supplements, which include a wide range of products such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, fatty acids, or amino acids. An investigation conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered improper advertising and marketing of dietary supplements, as well as the existence of contaminants such as mercury, lead, and pesticides in certain products. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, dietary supplements are not subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they are marketed and sold to consumers. Claims made about these products in advertisements are also subject to only limited regulation. Recent surveys indicate that at least 40 percent of American adults take dietary supplements. In 2006, Americans reportedly spent $23 billion on herbal and specialty supplements, which is almost half the amount they spent on prescription drugs.
"Let's be clear that no one is suggesting that consumers should not be able to take vitamins or other dietary supplements. Our concern is that they be able to do so safely. American consumers should have access to comprehensive, accurate information about these products, so they are empowered to make the best decisions about their own health," said Kohl.
In his opening statement, Kohl called for dietary supplement companies and the products they sell to be properly registered with the federal government, so that FDA has the ability to identify and act on safety concerns. Kohl also called for better labeling that includes warnings about potential side effects or dangers, and notification on products that contain ingredients known to have adverse effects or harmful interactions with prescription drugs. Finally, Kohl called for the reduction and elimination of dangerous contaminants, and for stronger recall authority for the FDA.
Greg Kutz,head of GAO's Forensic Audits and Special Investigations division, offered testimony concerning the questionable marketing and manufacturing practices they uncovered. As part of their investigation, GAO referred marketing and contaminant samples to FDA and FTC for further review and possible action. Dr. Tod Cooperman of Consumer Lab discussed the results of their independent testing of dietary ingredients, as well as discussed the rollout of FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMPs, and what impact these guidelines will have on manufacturing practices.
The Committee also heard from Charles Bell of Consumers Union, who spoke to the potential hazards the public faces from different types of supplements, including background information on their research and resulting consumer warnings, the implications of misleading marketing for consumers, as well as hazards surrounding drug-dietary supplement interaction. Steven Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, offered testimony on behalf of the industry's five major trade organizations.
To conclude the hearing, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, FDA Deputy Commissioner, testified concerning the agency's responsibilities in regulating dietary supplements, which is a joint effort of both the food and drug centers of FDA. Sharfstein responded to longstanding criticisms that it lacks sufficient resources and authority to adequately police the industry.
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