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Health supplements containing cow parts in danger

February 8, 2004 Scripps Howard News Service by LISA MARSHALL

Dehydrated cow pituitary. Raw adrenal glands. Bits of bovine thyroid, thymus and trachea.

Not exactly the kinds of things most consumers want to gnaw on or swallow down each morning with their multivitamin, but many alternative medicine devotees do just that.

According to nutritionists and naturopathic doctors, an array of popular dietary supplements contain ingredients obtained from cow brains, glands, ligaments, bones and other organs. Children chew bits of cow pituitary glands to boost stunted growth; Stressed adults suck adrenal glands for energy.

And the results, practitioners say, are impressive.

"I had one child who was under-developed. I put him on pituitary, and he grew six inches in a few months," says Dr. JoHannah Reilly, a naturopath who took pituitary supplements herself to remedy a glandular problem that stunted her tooth growth.

"The results were profound," says Reilly, a resident of Boulder, Colo.

But soon, due to sweeping new federal regulations aimed at quelling fears about mad cow disease, many such products will be harder to find, if available at all. And some speculate those left on the shelves will come under increased scrutiny from consumers questioning just how safe their dietary supplements are.

In the wake of the discovery of the first case of a U.S. cow with the fatal brain-wasting disease, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed new rules banning a wide range of bovine-derived material from FDA-regulated human food, dietary supplements, and cosmetics. The list covers anything derived from cow brain, skull, eyes, and spinal cord of cattle 30 months or older, and a portion of the small intestine and tonsils from all cattle. It also applies to products being imported from other countries.

The number of immediately effected products is small - fewer than half of 1 percent of dietary supplements contain animal glands or organs, according to industry trade groups - and none will be pulled from the shelves immediately, say FDA officials.

"We are looking at every conceivable way that this kind of material can make its way into consumption by humans or animals," says FDA spokesman Brad Stone. "That is why the ban is there. It is not because there is concern that large amounts of this product are in the marketplace."

But those who use them and prescribe them say the products will be missed.

Industry officials haven't yet pinned down exactly which products will fall victims to the ban, but so-called glandulars are expected to be the first, particularly if they contain brain matter. The supplements often contain ground, dried or powdered parts of cow glands, which are said to mimic the function of a human gland that may be producing too much or too little hormone. For instance a person with a thyroid deficiency might take a thyroid glandular; someone with an understimulated pituitary might take pituitary.

Reilly says they work best if sucked on, rather than just swallowed, because then they are absorbed through the tongue and interact with the brain more quickly. She's been prescribing themto patients for decades.

"I'm going to miss them a lot," she says. "But I have already backed off of prescribing them a lot because of the whole mad cow scare."

USDA officials announced in late December that the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, had been discovered in a Washington state Holstein. It is believed that humans can contract a fatal human variant of the brain wasting disease when they consume meat infected with it.

Consumer advocates point out that glandulars are often made from the very parts most likely to be infected with the agent that causes the disease, the brain and spinal materials discarded at the slaughterhouse because they are not fit for human consumption.

"That is a really a concern," says Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and mad cow expert with the Organic Consumers Association. "You can walk into a mainstream health food store and find, bottled on the shelf, the potentially riskiest parts of the cow. And you are swallowing it."

(Contact Lisa Marshall of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at


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