The Great Supplement Scare

Imagine walking into your favorite health food store only to find that, amid the aisles of organic produce and tofu, the shelves that once contained nutritional supplements were empty! No vitamins, no minerals, no herbs. That’s what groups like International Advocates for Health Freedom and The Life Extension Foundation say will happen if the United Nations gets its way.

Illustration: Blackshear

Using fax machines, the Internet and newsletters to spread the word, these very combative crusaders believe that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working with the UN’s World Health Organization, has launched an international attack on alternative medicine. And it’s surprising how much credibility their alarmist reports have gained—the supposed attack on herbals has set off a major buzz in the naturopathic community. “The governments of France, England, Germany, Canada and the United States are coordinating efforts to eradicate every dietary supplement not ‘approved’ by a new multinational government committee,” asserts William Faloon, vice-president of The Life Extension Foundation.

Is the Threat Real?

These groups cite federal bans on the sleep aid L-tryptophan and alternative cancer remedies such as laetrile as proof of a conspiracy, and contrast that treatment with the relatively rare withdrawal of clinically approved pharmaceutical drugs. Even now, they say, the FDA is pushing to restrict ephedra, better known as ma huang, an herbal remedy used for centuries in Chinese medicine to relieve clogged sinuses. But, according to the FDA, ephedra is dangerous—even lethal—when concentrated into a potent and illegal amphetamine. The FDA points to the now banned Herbal Ecstasy, which was linked to 44 deaths, as a form of this “organic speed.”

That doesn’t matter to John Hammell, the most vocal and radical critic of the government’s regulation of dietary supplements. Founder of the intensely anti-government International Advocates for Health Freedom, Hammell points a finger at greedy international pharmaceutical empires working hand in hand with the UN and the FDA to restrict access to low-cost herbs, vitamins and minerals around the world. Ma huang is just one example. If successful, he says, “These giant companies will take over phytochemical [herbal] therapies.”

The Big Picture

While the UN is working to harmonize international food standards, including dietary supplements, its proponents say it’s not a secret conspiracy of New World Order folk plotting to restrict the world’s access to dietary supplements, as Hammell and a growing number of allies in the “patriot” movement suggest. The international organization in charge of this monumental task, known as the Codex Commission, is made up of more than 150 countries seeking to ease trade barriers through standardization.

According to the Colorado-based consumer group Citizens for Health, the United States is indeed participating in the Codex process, but its main goal is to protect the American people and to promote the FDA’s objectives on an international basis. “While we don’t often see eye-to-eye with the FDA on supplement issues, in fact they are being unfairly targeted on Codex,” says Citizens for Health Executive Director Dudan Haeger. “[The FDA] has strongly advocated U.S. laws creating the least-restrictive supplement regulations in the world.”

Even prominent herb-promoting organizations like the Texas-based American Botanical Council have no quarrel with Codex. “Our position is that it’s basically innocuous,” says press spokesperson Betsy Levy. Rob McCaleb, executive director of the Herb Research Foundation, adds, “The effort to build a grassroots movement against Codex seems to be misplaced, because the U.S. position is in line with the manufacturers of supplements. There’s a lot of emotion and talk of a conspiracy, but we don’t see any evidence of that.”

What the Codex Commission is attempting to develop are guidelines which, it believes, will “protect consumers’ health and ensure fair practice in food trade” around the globe. Although the Commission is addressing a number of food-related topics, it’s the proposed guidelines for essential nutrients that are causing the most commotion. While the Commission is looking into standardizing nutrients found in foods—such as Vitamins C and E, calcium and several dozen other vitamins and minerals—its focus doesn’t include herbs, amino acids, metabolites or hundreds of other non-essential nutrients.

Even though the Draconian scenarios envisioned may be greatly exaggerated, Citizens for Health believes there is some real cause for concern. “If adopted today,” explains Haeger, “the proposed guidelines would set minimum and maximum requirements for these dietary supplements, possibly resulting in reduced potencies.” The guidelines would also restrict therapeutic claims from being listed on the labels of these products, a significant hindrance for some companies’ marketing plans.

What Price Freedom?

Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, doesn’t believe that the proposed restrictions are necessarily a bad idea. “By setting maximum toxicity levels, the Commission would ultimately help protect the safety of consumers,” he says, adding that many herbal remedies contain little or no information about therapeutic value, potential side effects or dosage amount. But, according to FDA officials, that’s the way many alternative health adherents want it.

Yet American consumers may be putting themselves in the position of guinea pigs. Since Congress eased the federal regulation of dietary supplements, manufacturers of dietary supplements and herbal remedies aren’t required to provide quality control or prove their products are safe before putting them on the market, making shopping for a good-quality supplement difficult at best. It’s a Catch-22, putting the FDA in the precarious position of trying to balance freedom of access with the responsibility of insuring public safety. While officials have serious concerns about some herbs and supplements, the reality of vitamin and herbal product regulation is, they say, just the opposite of what alarmists are telling their flocks. “The public wants access to these products,” says FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore. “Any rumors that current or pending legislation—or some sinister group—would restrict free access are completely false.”

So, is Codex really a threat to dietary supplement freedom in America? Not according to the U.S. Codex Office in Washington, D.C., which insists that the commission’s standards are not binding on any one country. “The guidelines won’t replace national legislation,” says Patrick Clerkin, director of the U.S. Codex Office. “Recommendations based on sound science will be made to national governments by the Codex Commission, but each nation will be able to pick and choose their own level of protection.”

A Question of Credibility

Hammell can convincingly cite cases of the FDA using “jack-booted thug” tactics to lower the b

oom on alternative medicine and dietary supplements. Last September gun-toting authorities raided the Alternative Medical Center in Denver. Federal badges were flashed, and search-and-seizure papers were presented alleging Medicare fraud. After detaining a number of patients, authorities seized office records, but no arrests were made or charges filed.

And during the early 1990s, the FDA targeted a number of doctors and health food stores promoting the use of dietary supplements. The office of Dr. Jonathan Wright, an alternative physician in Kent, Washington, who practices vitamin B therapy, was raided in 1992 by FDA officials aided by the local SWAT team. While no charges were brought against Dr. Wright, the FDA confiscated $100,000 worth of dietary supplements, equipment and patient records.

Is the FDA shooting itself in the foot? The rumors of multinational conspiracies are flourishing, even though Whitmore calls the claims that America is somehow being manipulated by the UN “ridiculous.” But, says Haeger, “When the American people see these FDA raids, it just amplifies their distrust.” That distrust could ultimately work against the FDA’s efforts to make dietary supplements safe and accessible.

KIM ERICKSON is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, NV.