Natural Foods Merchandiser

Supplements study no cause for alarm, say experts

Herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation were found to contain trace amounts of lead and other contaminants. But the Council for Responsible Nutrition says until the full study is released, retailers and consumers need not worry.

A report prepared by the Government Accountability Office found trace amounts of lead and heavy metals including mercury, cadmium and arsenic in several of the supplements tested. The levels of these metals did not exceed legal limits, investigators found. Pesticide residues, however, in 16 of the 40 supplements tested did exceed regulatory limits.

Steve Mister, president of the CRN, said that while he has no reason to believe the study is invalid, until it’s known how it was designed, which products were tested, where and by whom, there’s no reason for retailers or consumers to be alarmed. The trace amounts of heavy metals found, he said, are not surprising considering the elements naturally occur in soil and plants.

“The question is: Are the levels high enough that we should be concerned, or do we just have detection devices now that will allow us to identify very, very minute levels?” he said. The Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Drug Administration, which both provided the GAO report, also found the supplements’ metal levels weren’t high enough to be of concern.

The EPA has not set pesticide tolerance levels for all the herbs in the study, which may account for why some exceeded the legal limit. If a pesticide does not have an allowable limit, that limit is zero, Mister said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not safe for the consumer, it just means that the EPA hasn’t gotten around to looking at it,” he said.

The study comes on the heels of the Dietary Supplement Full Implementation and Enforcement Act of 2010, introduced today by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), which aims to protect consumer access to dietary supplements by providing theFDA with better resources for enforcing regulations. Mister said he hopes the GAO study will also heighten awareness by putting the onus on suppliers to make sure what they’re producing is safe and by encouraging manufacturers to ask questions.

Still, until more information is available, Mister advises retailers to remain confident.

“I suspect retailers will start to get more questions from consumers who want assurances their products are safe,” he said. “They should feel comfortable, at least based on this GAO study, that they are.”

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