Government Goes Undercover to Investigate Supplements

That confused-looking old man in the dietary supplements aisle was more than he seemed. He was actually an undercover government agent.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, wanted to know how supplements were being marketed and sold. That little old man – and undercover agents like him – came back with a disturbing answer. Store employees and labels exaggerate or lie about what supplements can do, the GAO reported last month. The products aren’t regulated or evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but Federal Trade Commission rules are supposed to restrain such health claims.

A store employee told one investigator that it was okay to replace blood pressure medication with a garlic supplement.  And the little old man mentioned earlier? He was told that he could take both aspirin and ginkgo biloba, even though the FDA warns that such a combination puts patients at risk of internal bleeding.

“The most egregious practices included suspect marketing claims that a dietary supplement prevented or cured extremely serious diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease,” the GAO wrote.

But as unnerving as those problems may sound, the GAO uncovered others.

  • Supplements are sold with trace amounts of dangerous substances, including arsenic and lead. The amounts detected don’t break federal rules, though.
  • Some pills are also laced with pesticides, and this time the amounts are above FDA limits.

In prepared comments to the Senate’s Committee on Aging, FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein sought to downplay fears about contaminants. “We do not believe these levels represent a significant risk to health,” he said, especially given the small amounts of supplements consumed.

Lawmakers, medical experts and now the GAO are pushing for more FDA oversight of supplements. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, has backed legislation giving the agency greater authority.

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GAO summary

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