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Snake Oil? Herbal Supplements Can Be Deceptive

May 27, 2010

A US government investigation has found that makers and sellers of ginseng, echinacea and other herbal supplements often make false claims that the products can cure cancer or replace prescription medications.

In the undercover probe, officials from the Government Accountability Office also found that labels for some supplements claim to prevent or cure ailments like diabetes and heart disease.

The claims are a clear violation of US law.

GAO staff targeted products most popular with older consumers and posed as elderly buyers in stores or over the telephone.

“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 said in a report released Wednesday.

One shopper, for instance, was told at a supplement specialty store that a garlic supplement could be taken instead of prescribed blood pressure medicine. Another undercover staffer was told by a salesperson that he could take aspirin and ginkgo biloba together with no harm. The Food and Drug Administration states that the combination can cause internal bleeding.

The GAO said it also found trace amounts of potentially harmful contaminants such as lead and arsenic, but at levels that do not exceed federal guidelines.

However, findings of pesticides did exceed the FDA’s guidelines and at least 16 of the 40 supplements tested would violate FDA acceptable levels.

Manufacturers told the GAO that they were concerned about the contamination findings, but “that the levels identified were too low to raise any issues” during their own testing.

“Given the expected generally small consumption of the supplements, we do not believe these levels represent a significant risk to health,” FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said in remarks prepared for the Senate Committee on Aging.

The FDA does not give approvals for dietary supplements as they do with prescription medications. The Federal Trade Commission regulates the marketing of herbal supplements, which are not allowed to make claims that they can treat medical ailments and conditions.

Experts at the Institute of Medicine have said the FDA needs to implement the same strict standards for herbal supplements as it uses for medications, and earlier this week the GAO said the FDA should ask Congress for more power to regulate supplements.

Sharfstein said the FDA will investigate supplements only after a product is sold by reviewing medical literature and analyzing complaints. The agency has taken action to help recall dozens of tainted supplements and alert consumers to hazardous products, he said.

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