Concern over 'mad cow' entering through diet supplements

April 6, 2001 Scripps Howard News Service by Lance Gay

Raw animal parts sold over-the-counter as "brain tonics" or virility pick-me-ups could provide an avenue for "mad cow" syndrome to enter the United States, some physicians contend.

The dietary supplement industry admits that even popular over-the-counter products like melatonin and condroitin sulfate - used to fight jet lag and muscle soreness - could contain animal parts. It says it is taking steps to ensure that raw materials are coming from disease-free herds.

Peter Lurie, a physician and deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a nonprofit organization started by Ralph Nader, says a loophole in federal law is allowing animal parts to be imported as dietary supplements from countries battling "mad cow" outbreaks, even though the U.S. Agriculture Department imposed a ban on animal imports from these regions in 1989.

Lurie said shipments between countries is making it difficult to determine the exact country of origin of many of the materials sold as dietary supplements or in health food stores - a $16 billion industry in the United States. Customs records show the United States last year imported 3.3 million pounds of dried animal glands.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an "import alert" last November warning the health-food industry not to use animal parts from countries infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, the scientific name for "mad cow" disease, in nonprescription drugs sold in health-food stores.

Many of what the industry calls "glandular" products are made from ground-up cattle brains, thymus or testicles and sold as products to improve brain power or virility. Some other over-the-counter products including melatonin and condroitin sulfate can contain parts of the treachea (throat) of cattle.

"We sent letters telling them about this," said Stephen Sundlof, director of veterinary medicine for the Food and Drug Administration. Sundlof said he does not use health-store products himself.

Congress in 1994 stripped the FDA of authority to regulate health foods as drugs, but said the agency could establish regulations requiring the industry to follow "good manufacturing practices." The FDA has never issued those rules, and Lurie said Congress should consider putting the health-food industry under stricter controls.

Representatives of the dietary supplement industry say they are aware of the worries about animal products from infected countries getting into the United States.

"We share their concerns,'' said Allen Montgomery of the American Nutraceutical Association in Birmingham, Ala. Montgomery urged the FDA to speed up publication of standards that would set federal rules for the industry and require consistent labeling of the origins of the products.

Montgomery said glandular products amount to only a small amount of the health-food products the industry manufactures, and normally are sold through chiropractors and other health professionals. "These are not mainstream products,'' he said.

But Scott Norton, a dermatologist with Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, told the New England Journal of Medicine in a letter published last year that he found one product in a suburban Washington health-food store that contained parts of 17 cattle organs, including brain, spleen, lung, liver, pancreas, pituitary, pineal gland, adrenal glands, lymph node, placenta, prostate, heart, kidney, intestine and thyroid.

Norton said other health-food products were labeled as being made from "orchis," which is Latin for a bull's testicle, and there were bottles labeled "thymus," some of which contained the herb thyme and others bovine lymphoid tissue.

In a statement, five associations representing the industry said glandular products represent only 0.4 percent of total sales of health-food products, and noted that many of those products are eaten by people as regular meat products.

"It is important to note that many glandular products are not derived from bovine sources at all, but from other species, including pigs," the statement said.

It was signed by the American Herbal Products Association, the National Nutritional Foods Association, the Utah Natural Products Alliance, the Consumer Health Care Products Association and the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

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