The GAO today released a report to Congress that had previously been reported on in the New York Times. The report investigated deceptive or illegal marketing practices among sellers of herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), there is precious little restriction on manufacturers and marketers of these products. All supplements are presumed to be safe without any pre-marketing evidence required, and the FDA can only restrict such products or their sale if post-marketing surveillance, which is haphazard at best, indicates a health threat. Marketers of such products can technically only make vague claims about their products, not claiming that they prevent or treat any specific disease unless they pass the stringent standards of evidence applied to pharmaceuticals. However, this report shows that even these weak limits are being widely ignored.
Many examples of deceptive and illegal marketing practices were identified. GAO employees posing as elderly consumers were told that herbal products could cure several diseases, including cancer, that they could be substituted for prescription medications, and that they could be used safely along with medications even when there is evidence this is untrue.
The GAO also tested 40 supplements for heavy metal and pesticide contamination and found contaminates in 37 of them. The levels were low, but because such products are under-regulated, clear standards for safe levels of these substances have not been established, so it is impossible to know how much risk this poses to the consumer. Certainly, the claim that such products are “all natural” and thus safer than pharmaceuticals is belied by these test results. Can you imagine what the alternative medicine folks would say if lead or pesticides were found in prescription drugs? Yet the manufacturers of these products express no concern, and they have effectively blocked attempts by Sen. John McCain and others to strengthen the regulation of their products. So much for the David and Goliath Myth. Big Herb and his buddy Big Supplement are playing the same game as Big Pharma, they just don’t have any referee watching to see if they play by the rules.