Our Federal government has it’s critics on both sides of the spectrum, and it has problems for which the criticism is warranted. One area that is constantly both praised and ridiculed is it’s oversight of foods and drugs. The FDA is a hero and villain in equal parts, and is in the news constantly as it pulls drugs off the shelf today and gets grief for not pulling drugs off the shelf tomorrow.
The New York Times highlights the news that sometimes when dietary supplements, herbal medicines that are unregulated and untested for efficacy, cause medical problems like psychiatric effects or kidney or liver problems, the FDA in combination with the emergency rooms and doctors across the nation, are slow to get the products off of the shelves.
It is improper, however, to hold only the government to blame in this when we all know, or should know, that just because something has a health claim attached to it’s reputation or on it’s box, that that does not make what is inside the box pure or even what it claims to be. Products that are produced overseas are sometimes made in ancient methods. Herbs are fertilized with the real thing, manure, sometimes human. Drying is done on mats under the sun, with the herbs being contaminated by the waste of the neighborhood being blown in on the breeze. If there is a leaf that is the right color, sometimes it is cut into your supplement to cut the cost and increase the profit for the maker.
A recent Canadian study found a significant problem of fraudulent labeling, unsafe or diluted products claiming to be this or that beneficial plant, and sometimes toxic ornamental weeds instead. While I wish that this study had originated in the US, I feel that there is enough evidence that the supplement industry is unreliable to warrant not using them until such time as the industry voluntarily submits to rigorous quality controls and oversight.
When the government does not pull a product from the shelf, we must stop thinking that it means the products are therefore safe. It does not mean this at all. Chicken, beef and pork steeped in hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals whose only duty is to keep livestock from dying off en mass in their hellish living conditions remains on the shelf, but it’s being on the shelf does not make it safe or healthy to consume. To name just one food-borne illness, E. Coli infected people at the rate of 1.15 per hundred thousand people, or 3450 cases reported last year. CDC estimates that 26 times more people than that were infected but went unreported. That is close to 90,000 people infected. While that proves our food system is imperfect, it also proves that we must guard our own interests without assuming that the FDA or CDC is going to protect us from harm. After you get sick, they will pull the food or drugs off of the shelf. They are not making sure that the food or drugs won’t make you sick in the first place.