Senator Claire McCaskill Asks, “Are Health Supplements Safe?”

My Approved PortraitsSenator Claire McCaskill is questioning various retailers and Internet companies regarding the sales of supplements that claim to preserve brain health in seniors by blocking the effects of memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The products carry dubious names like “Food for the Brain,” “Dementia Drops” and “Brain Awake.”

McCaskill, who is a member of the Senate Aging Committee, sent letters to 15 retailers inquiring about the vetting process involved with products that make untrue claims. The committee is often involved in probes of health scams that target senior citizens.

The current investigation delves deep into the industry of bulk dietary supplements which brings in $30 billion annually by way of questionable manufacturing and often outrageous advertising and marketing practices. Since supplements are not subject to FDA approval like over-the-counter and prescription drugs, the market is wide open to an older, vulnerable population.

McCaskill’s investigation is specifically looking at dementia supplements as that is a primary health concern among seniors. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, affecting around five million people. It is incurable and medication only manages symptoms. McCaskill is especially interested in how dementia supplements are purchased by the older demographic.

The senator has requested meetings with GNC, Kroger, Google and Wal-Mart. She asked the retailers to explain the practices and policies surrounding supplement sales. Wal-Mart replied by stating it would be cooperative in the probe when appropriate. Kroger, GNC and Google have not yet responded. While companies do not have to comply with a congressional request, they are obligated to supply information and appear before Congress if subpoenaed.

Supplements are not reviewed by the FDA, which means manufacturers carry the responsibility for testing, effectiveness and honest marketing. If a product makes a specific health claim, it must have a disclaimer stating the product has not been approved by the FDA. Many products do not comply with this disclaimer requirement. While the FDA warns companies that do not use a disclaimer, it cannot remove a supplement from the market unless it is proven to be unsafe. Laws that would give the FDA needed authority regarding supplements have been defeated by lobbyists.

McCaskill said that while the FDA is currently limited in regard to supplements, it could be doing more by issuing penalties to companies for failure to report side effects and not registering the facilities where manufacturing takes place. McCaskill, along with committee chair Representative Susan Collins, has requested the FDA to submit a list of all supplement companies that have broken the rules since 2007. In addition, the FDA is asked to provide information regarding new supplement ingredients, which would give regulators a chance review products before they go to market.

The FDA said it will issue a direct reply to the request.