Magazine article Common Cause Magazine

No Sacred Cows

Magazine article Common Cause Magazine

No Sacred Cows

Article excerpt


Donna Jones, a Takoma Park Md., photographer, suffered for two years from respiratory problems, coughing so severely she broke a rib. Prescription medications didn't work, so she tried herbal remedies. Her symptoms cleared up -- and Jones became a convert.

She also joined the ranks of consumers who have flooded Congress with angry letters about a new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule they believe could cut off their access to so-called dietary supplements.

Among jaded Washington insiders, the battle has been an eye-opener. After all, the FDA's rule is relatively straightforward: The only thing it bans is health claims for dietary supplements that aren't supported by FDA-approved scientific evidence. In the words of FDA chief David Kessler, "If someone wants to put sawdust in a bottle and sell it for $14, it is okay with me as long as they don't put a claim [on it] that it is useful to treat or prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes or arthritis."

Under the rule, a store can't peddle, say, Vitamin E with a medical journal article about its benefits. But nothing stops a store from handing out flyers about the FDA, and this fall that's exactly what thousands of them did. One result: Many lawmakers got more mail about the FDA rule than any other issue -- including NAFTA, gun control and health care reform.

At a time when regulatory agencies are trying to breathe life into moribund consumer protections, this grassroots uprising stunned not only government officials but also such well-known consumer groups as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Public Citizen's Health Research Group. They blame the multibillion-dollar dietary supplements industry for spearheading a campaign that has shifted from routine business gripes about new labeling requirements to a more fundamental debate about the proper role for government in regulating the alternative health movement.

Along the way the FDA has been put on notice that some of the same consumers who might want their chicken -- or tofu -- to be untainted are deeply suspicious of the agency's motives when it comes to alternative medicine. To them, a medical establishment that pooh-poohs ancient treatments like acupuncture is not likely to give a fair hearing to Vitamin C, let alone alternative products like shark cartilage, a treatment the FDA says is useless but others believe may have a role in shrinking tumors.

"I think people have a fair beef," concedes Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's legal affairs director. "FDA is a very conservative agency. But the solution is not to deregulate the industry. The solution is to pressure FDA to remain open-minded."

Some nutrition advocates aren't that patient. Among them is Patricia Hausman, former editor of CSPI's magazine Nutrition Action. "Too many assume that business must be wrong on this issue because it is on the other side of government and well-known nonprofit groups," she maintains. "This is another black-and-white view of the world that defies logic and everyday experience."

Hausman has aligned herself with an industry that boasts more than $4 billion in sales of everything from multiple vitamins to more exotic products like "medicine wheel serene extract." This is big business, and running interference for it in Washington are the California-based National Nutritional Food Association, which represents manufacturers and retailers, and the Washington-based Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents 60 large manufacturers and suppliers. …

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