A week ago we heard Eric Schneiderman, Attorney General of New York State, and thirteen of his colleagues plead with Congress to strengthen supervision over the supplement industry. The reason: His team had tested several dietary supplements and found that they either did not contain ingredients listed on the label, or contained ingredients not listed on the label, or both. This rendered the supplements useless to harmful. In this whole mess the Food and Drug Administration was nowhere to be seen.
Today we find out that weightloss and dietary supplements sold across the United States contain BMPEA, or beta-methylphenylethylamine. The news comes from a research study by Pieter Cohen, Clayton Bloszies, Caleb Yee, and Roy Gerona, published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis (DTA). For background, the FDA had found BMPEA, a potentially harmful stimulant, in dietary supplements labelled as containing acacia rigidula, a small shrub at home in Texas. Over a year later, in spring 2014, the authors of the DTA study tested whether the chemical had been removed from the supplements. They examined 21 brands of supplements that listed acacia rigidula as an ingredient, and found that 11 still contained BMPEA, a substance that is being sold as a botanical but is most likely synthetic in nature. The authors warn that because the safety of the chemicals has not been tested and several supplements contain levels in potentially dangerous doses, the FDA should remove BMPEA from dietary supplements. Why hasn’t it done so?
The New York Times blames it on a practice of revolving doors, so common in US politics: Industry leaders are appointed to become government regulators of their own industry. Here’s how the revolving door has been working in the area of supplements, according to the New York Times’s Anahad O’Connor:
Daniel Fabricant, who ran the [FDA’s] division of dietary supplement programs from 2011 to 2014, had been a senior executive at that trade group, the Natural Products Association, which has spent millions of dollars lobbying to block new laws that would hold supplement makers to stricter standards. He left the F.D.A. last year and returned to the association as its chief executive. His current replacement at the F.D.A.’s supplement division [Cara Welch] also comes from the trade group.
Another problem is the close cozy triangle between the supplements industry, its lobbyists, and influential members of Congress. Says Anahad O’Connor:
Regulation of the supplements industry has long been contentious. Under a 1994 law, supplements are exempt from the rigorous oversight applied to prescription drugs and medical devices. They do not have to undergo federal reviews of their safety or effectiveness before they are sold to the public, and as a result tainted supplements are usually pulled from the market only after consumers are harmed.
The Natural Products Association played a crucial role in the passage of that law — the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act — which was sponsored by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, where many supplement companies are headquartered. Mr. Hatch has long been a top recipient of campaign contributions from the Natural Products Association, and his son, Scott Hatch, is a founding partner at a Washington firm that lobbies for the organization.
The consequence of the revolving door or the cozy triangle is weak laws and even weaker enforcement. In this case, people who want to lose weight or gain a buff physique may pay the price by suffering a stroke or getting addicted.
We need a strong Food and Drug Administration, one that advocates for consumers. Until that happens, I will avoid supplement stores when possible and try to get my nutrients by eating well.
How about you?