Can You Trust Your Dietary Supplement?
Nov. 18, 2015 — Seven federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FDA, held an extraordinary joint press conference Tuesday to announce the civil and criminal indictments of more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements.
At the center of the action, called the Dietary Supplement Sweep, was an 11-count criminal indictment against Dallas-based USPlabs. The company made weight loss and bodybuilding supplements blamed for dozens of liver injuries — some which required transplants — and several fatal heart attacks in young, apparently healthy adults, authorities say.
“The USPlabs case and others brought as part of this sweep illustrate alarming practices the department found — practices that must be brought to the public’s attention so consumers know the serious health risks of untested products,” says the DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer in a press release.
The indictment offers a rare glimpse into the dangerous sell first, test later business practices embraced by the supplements industry and codified by a 1994 law called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA. The law allows supplement manufacturers to self-certify that their products are safe and effective. The FDA can only step in once a problem comes to light.
Critics of the supplement industry applauded the indictments, but said they wouldn’t be enough to keep consumers safe in the long run until laws are changed.
“I’m glad to see enforcement actions taking place against companies that knowingly endanger or mislead American consumers. But, the bottom line is that a lack of consistent oversight makes the dietary supplement industry resemble the Wild West — and until the government makes this a real priority, we will continue to see shelves stocked with products that could potentially harm American families,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill said in a press statement.
If the government wins its case against USPlabs, the company could face hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. Four company executives and a consultant face between 1 and 100 years in prison, depending on the individual charges against them.
“What worries me tremendously is that USPlabs is not alone in this practice,” says Pieter Cohen, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard who has published numerous studies questioning the safety of dietary supplements. “There are dozens of other companies doing the same thing today — so consumers should understand that this is typical for the industry and reflects products sold at mainstream retailers.”