WASHINGTON, Nov 25 (AFP) - The powerful, underregulated US food supplement industry markets a wide range of products that carry risks to public health, as deaths linked to the now banned ephedra derivatives have shown, according to industry critics.
Such claims, however, are strenuously denied by the multi-billion dollar food supplement industry which says its products are safe to consume and represent the lifestyle choice of millions of consumers across America.
Vitamins, proteins, herbal infusions, exotic plant extracts and an untold number of miracle potions to lose weight or enhance sexual performance fall under the heading of food products, according to a law passed by Congress in 1994.
As opposed to pharmaceutical companies, food supplement producers are not held to standards and regulations overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure a product's safety and efficiency before it is offered to the market, said Janell Mayo Duncan, a lawyer for the Consumer Union, which defends consumer rights.
"Ideally those products should be treated as drugs," she said, echoing the view of several concerned lawmakers.
Even if the FDA had the power to ban some of these products, she added, it would have to prove that they pose a significant health risk, a mission that Duncan contends would be virtually impossible for the understaffed watchdog.
With just 60 inspectors to regulate a 19 billion dollar market of more than 29,000 products sold by 1,000 companies, the FDA is overwhelmed, according to Marion Nestle, a nutritionist with New York University.
"People cannot assume the FDA is minding the store, because it's not. It can't," she cautioned.
Compounding the problem is the lack of a central system to keep statistics on toxicity and other health problems caused by some food supplements, stressed Duncan.
It took nine years before ephedra could be removed from the market in April 2004, despite several studies that had shown over the years the dangers the nasal decongestant poses when used for weight control or sports performance enhancement.
According to a report issued by Senator Dick Durbin in late 2003, ephedra derivatives have been responsible for more than 155 deaths and 16,500 heart attacks and strokes in the United States.
While the vast majority of food supplements such as vitamins are considered low risk, at least 12 other "dangerous" products are still offered over the Internet and specialized stores, according to research by Consumer Report magazine.
Despite its limited firepower, the FDA in early November decided to increase its scrutiny of producers of food supplements deemed to be fraudulent.
Provisional FDA administrator Lester Crawford said he has come up with a new system to detect dangerous products on the market, but he has yet to explain how the new system will operate.
But for Judy Blatman, public relations chief for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the main group representing the supplemental food sector, "Ephedra was an anomaly."
"Over 150 millions Americans in this country are taking food supplements ... We think that, overall, the safety profile of food supplements is extremely high," she said.
However, she added, "the Internet presents another challenge."
COPYRIGHT 2004 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.