FDA voices concern over supplements, mad cow disease

May 5, 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service by Richard Harkness

Q. I was terrified to hear that a person might get mad cow disease from taking certain herbal supplements. Is there any truth to this?

A. Concerns have been raised that dietary supplements containing ingredients derived from animal parts might transmit "mad cow disease." The FDA has voiced its concern on this issue in a letter to manufacturers and importers of dietary supplements.

Mad cow disease (BSE is the scientific name) is now a worldwide worry, with more than a dozen countries reporting cases of the fatal, brain-wasting disease in cattle. Thousands of cattle have been slaughtered to prevent spreading of the disorder.

Other animals can also harbor the disease, including sheep, deer and elk. In fact, the origin of the disease in cows is thought to have been sheep-rendered animal feed fed to cattle. Another possible source was an infected antelope that died in a British safari park in the 1970s, its carcass rendered for use as protein-rich cattle feed.

The danger to people is that the cow disease has been linked to the human brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, apparently spread by eating beef from affected cows. The infected brain takes on a sponge-like appearance as it becomes riddled with holes.

Over 90 human cases have been suspected or confirmed in Europe, mostly in the U.K. So far, no cow or human outbreaks have been reported in the U.S. or Canada, and countries around the world are taking precautions aimed at preventing the spread of the disease across their borders.

Prevention is the only treatment; normal methods used against infectious diseases don't work. The causative agent is thought to be an abnormal protein called a prion that creates toxic plaques in the brain.

Here's part of the text of FDA's letter to manufacturers of supplements:

"We strongly recommend that firms manufacturing or importing dietary supplements which contain specific bovine (cow) tissues, including extracts or substances derived from such tissues, take all steps necessary to assure themselves and the public that such ingredients do not come from cattle born, raised or slaughtered in countries where BSE (mad cow disease) exists."

You'll notice the letter's lack of punch. That's because the FDA is relatively powerless when it comes to regulating dietary supplements.

The FDA letter listed the following animal tissues in order of their suspected disease-spreading potential:

Category I (High infectivity): brain, spinal cord

Category II (Medium infectivity): ileum, lymph nodes, proximal colon, spleen, tonsil, dura mater , pineal gland, placenta, cerebrospinal fluid, pituitary gland, adrenal gland

Category III (Low infectivity): distal colon, nasal mucosa, sciatic nerve, bone marrow, liver, lung, pancreas, thymus gland

Attempting to determine the source of animal material used in a dietary supplement can be like stepping into a blind alley. Many manufacturers don't list the animal source or the country of origin on the label.

Though the risk of contracting the brain disease from dietary supplements is theoretical at this time, it would be prudent to try to avoid products containing suspect ingredients.

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