GUY RAZ, host:
This past week, the Government Accountability Office released a startling report on the herbal supplement industry. Dozens of supplements were found that contained traces of contaminants, like lead and pesticides. Oftentimes, they're manufactured overseas in factories that are not inspected by U.S. officials.
But the GAO says what's more important is the way these supplements are marketed. Manufacturers aren't allowed to claim their products cure disease and they certainly aren't allowed to suggest that gingko biloba or ginseng can replace prescription medication. But in many cases, that's exactly what's happening.
Here's an audio clip from a conversation between a supplement sales rep and an undercover GAO investigator.
(Soundbite of audio clip)
Unidentified Man #1: You think I can stop taking my meds and just use this?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. What a lot of people do is like, you know, they start taking both at the same time.
Unidentified Man #1: Mm-hmm.
Unidentified Man #2: And then slowly, you will stop taking the other prescription medicine and just continue with this.
RAZ: Greg Kutz is the head of the GAO's forensic audits and special investigations division. He explains that his investigators told sales reps that they were suffering from diseases like diabetes and cancer.
Mr. GREG KUTZ (Managing Director, Forensic Audits and Special Investigations, Government Accountability Office): We use those scenarios to test the marketing of storefronts, websites and others we called across the country.
RAZ: Now, what kind of claims can a supplement manufacturer make legitimately?
Mr. KUTZ: They can make the structure function claims, for example, fish oil may improve or help you with your heart functioning properly versus saying that fish oil can cure heart disease. That would be the difference.
RAZ: One of the sales reps told one of your researchers that taking gingko biloba, combining it with aspirin, will improve memory and will fight the symptoms of Alzheimer's, but apparently the NIH says - the National Institutes of Health - say that this combination could cause internal bleeding. I mean, how common is it that these manufacturers are making claims that could actually be dangerous?
Mr. KUTZ: We don't know how common it was, but it wasn't hard to find those types of claims well more often than not that we found either deceptive claims or the dangerous medical advice.
RAZ: What power does the FDA have over supplements to sort of regulate them?
Mr. KUTZ: They have the power to regulate, I believe, the structure function claims and, to some extent, the labeling. The other player here is the Federal Trade Commission, who can get into the deceptive or misleading marketing.
RAZ: But how can consumers be protected from this?
Mr. KUTZ: Well, hopefully, the - our report - getting the word out to consumers to be careful, to consult with your doctor before you actually take a dietary supplement and to make sure you understand that if there was a cure for cancer for $10 a bottle, it would be actually have gone through a drug approval process.
RAZ: That's Greg Kutz. He is the head of the GAO's forensic audits and special investigations division and one of the authors of its new report on deceptive marketing practices within the herbal supplement industry.
Greg Kutz, thank you so much.
Mr. KUTZ: Thank you for having me.
RAZ: So why are herbal supplements so difficult to regulate? For that, we turn to Bruce Silverglade. He is with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. BRUCE SILVERGLADE (Legal Affairs Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Thank you.
RAZ: All right, so what is the answer? Why can so many supplements consumed in the U.S. by adults and babies and children, why can so many of those be produced, for example, in Chinese factories that are not inspected by the Food and Drug Administration?
Mr. SILVERGLADE: The reason is a 1994 law that the supplement industry lobbied for, which essentially deregulated the industry. These products are essentially unregulated. The claims on the labels generally go through no FDA premarket review. And instead, the label carries a disclaimer that the claim hasn't been evaluated by the FDA. But that's a cop out for government.
RAZ: I wonder if there is a risk that some of these unregulated supplements could actually post a public health risk.
Mr. SILVERGLADE: Well, I think most certainly. And in addition to the claims being grossly exaggerated often untrue, there's the question of just, is the ingredient safe for its intended use? And the FDA has to go through a lengthy court rulemaking procedure that can often take almost a half a dozen years sometimes in order to take a potentially dangerous product off the marketplace.
RAZ: The supplement industry is estimated to be worth about $25 billion. Does that give them a lot of power, a lot of lobbying power here in Washington?
Mr. SILVERGLADE: The supplement industry's political power in Washington actually comes from various segments of the American public, and it's an unusual issue, politically speaking, because the supplement industry derives a lot of power from the right-wing, from Republicans who just don't want to see any industry regulated, but also from the Democrats - on the left side of the Democratic Party that are usually the friends of consumers on issues of this sort, but often favor alternative medicine, complementary medicine. And from that philosophy have come to the conclusion somehow that the dietary supplement industry doesn't deserve to be regulated.
RAZ: That's Bruce Silverglade. He is the director of legislative affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Thanks for joining me.
Mr. SILVERGLADE: Thank you.
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