Sen. Dick Durbin’s bill unveiled this week, the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act, purports to use the long arm of the law to save consumers who can’t save themselves.
"My goal is to take the decision about how a product will be regulated out of the hands of the manufacturer and put it in the hands of the FDA where it belongs," Durbin said. "Consumers who don't scour the fine print on the back of products may never know the difference, but they will be safer as a result of this bill.
I’ll give Sen. Durbin one point – there are some commentators in the industry who say that as long as a product has a Supplement Facts box instead of the Nutrition Facts box on the back label, that’s all a consumer needs to know that they are actually consuming a dietary supplement and not a food.
Myself, I subscribe more to the “walks like a duck, talks like a duck” school – a Monster energy drink is not a supplement, nor is a PowerBar.
A 5-Hour Energy shot, however, I would put more in the supplement camp – no, it’s not a pill, but neither is this a drink, not really.
So there is some gray area, but what’s the difference? Dietary supplements are properly regulated as a food and not as a pharmaceutical drug. That’s well and good. We don’t go around having a regulatory body vouchsafe every tomato from the field (though maybe we should – there are a reported 3,000 deaths per year due to food-borne pathogens).
Let’s talk about safety of dietary supplements and functional ingredients that find themselves into innovative foods and beverages.
According to Suzanne Hendrich, Professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University, in the last four years, from 2006 to 2009, citing numbers from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there have been a total of two deaths associated with vitamins, eight from minerals, three from botanicals.
“The total number of cases is mostly for those under age six,” she said at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual convention a couple weeks ago. “In adults, older than age 19, adults are not experiencing any adverse effects from vitamins. Deaths and major adverse events, requiring hospitalization, are minimal. In the grand scheme of things that can poison us or harm us, it’s minimal.”
I’d like to challenge Sen. Durbin to direct his “save the children” legislative ruminations to things that are higher on the list of things that can cause harm. Even among teenagers, age 12 to 19, the leading cause of death is motor vehicle accidents. Where’s Ralph Nader when you need him?
Even among consumables, the leading cause of deaths is from “unintentional poisonings,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. No. 1 on the list: pharmaceutical drug overdoses. Second on the list is illicit drugs, like cocaine. Dietary supplements or functional ingredients? Nowhere to be seen.
Which is probably where this piece of legislation will end up.