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McCain, Dorgan Fight To Regulate Vitamin Supplements

February 19, 2010 - by Eric Naing

A bill to give the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate the sale of vitamin supplements is sparking heated opposition from the multi-billion dollar dietary supplement industry and creating strange bedfellows.

The Dietary Supplement Safety Act (S. 3002) introduced earlier this month by Sen. John McCain [R, AZ] and Sen. Byron Dorgan [D, ND] forces dietary supplement manufacturers to register with the FDA and disclose all the ingredients in their products. The bill also gives the FDA the authority to force a mandatory recall if the supplement is deemed unsafe.

The bill would be a major overhaul to the current Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act governing food and medicine. Under the DSHEA, medicine faces stricter regulation than food but a loophole allows “supplements” to be categorized as food and undergo the more lax regulation.

McCain says reports that some supplements can contain banned performance-enhancing substances inspired him to craft the bill:

[A] little over a year ago the NFL suspended six players, including two players from one of the teams competing this Sunday, for violating the league’s anti-doping policy. Several of the players were surprised that they tested positive for a banned substance because they used a dietary supplement they believed to be safe and legal.

It is for precisely this reason that today Senators Dorgan and I are proud to introduce the Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010. All Americans should know the exact ingredients of any dietary supplement they use and the FDA must have the tools necessary to ensure the safety of dietary supplements.

Fearing stronger government regulation, the dietary supplement industry is obviously fighting the bill, but a surprising ideological alliance is also voicing its opposition.

The Tuscon Citizen notes that both far left and far right groups are opposing the bill, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

The ultra-conservative John Birch Society says McCain’s bill is unnecessary and represents more big government intervention that will only harm the dietary supplement industry:

A Pandora’s box of intended and unintended legal complications and government harassment of nutritional supplement manufacturers and sellers could very well be unleashed if this bill is passed. There are already existing laws on the books that protect consumers from misbranded, fraudulent, or contaminated products

The liberal group Peace Team says McCain’s bill will harm people who prefer alternative medical options like herbal and vitamin supplements:

It wasn’t enough for Congress to kill off the public option. Now they want to kill us directly by trying to outlaw nutritious food supplements … again. The corporate medical industry is doing everything they can to keep the American people from having any option besides their over-priced and often harmful health “care”, when they aren’t denying coverage altogether that is.

Medical science blogger David Gorski, on the other hand, says the current DSHEA is “the greatest boon to supplement manufacturers ever” and that the law is not based on sound science. He is a supporter McCain’s proposal, particularly the provision giving the FDA the power to force a recall for supplements:

While it is true that the DSHEA does currently allow the FDA to ban supplements, it does not, as I understand it, give the FDA the power to issue a rapid order to cease distribution or to mandate a recall this quickly, nor does it require supplement manufacturers to register with the FDA. All in all, it is a welcome modification of a very bad law. Although it does not go far enough, it is a bill that supporters of science-based medicine should support.

Despite having the bipartisan support of two powerful senators, the Dietary Supplement Safety Act is far from guaranteed to make it out of Congress. As Gorski notes, another powerful bipartisan tag-team pose the biggest threat: Sen. Tom Harkin [D, IA], who helped craft the DSHEA, and Sen. Orrin Hatch [R, UT], who comes from a state that is home to several supplement manufacturers.

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