By: Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D.
As the head of the office that oversees dietary supplements, it is my responsibility to ensure that the dietary supplement products on the market — which are used by more than 180 million Americans daily — do not cause harm.
This is not an easy job because FDA’s authority to regulate dietary supplements is very different from the agency’s authority to regulate drugs and medical devices prior to their marketing. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are more than 85,000 dietary supplement products and no requirement for product registration.
Just recently we had a case that illustrates both the limits of FDA’s authority to regulate supplements and the promise of new enforcement tools provided by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Dozens of people were suffering acute liver failure or non-viral hepatitis so severe that several needed liver transplants, and one died. These people, by and large, had been healthy.
The illnesses were linked to certain OxyElite Pro dietary supplement products made by Texas-based USPLabs. Certain OxyElite Pro products and a second product, VERSA-1, contain a new dietary ingredient that has not been shown to be safe for use by consumers. This ingredient, aegeline, is a synthetic version of an alkaloid that exists, in natural form, in a tree that grows in parts of Asia.
This is the second time in little more than a year that USPLabs has produced supplements containing a new dietary ingredient that lack a history of use or other evidence of safety. In the previous case, the company added a stimulant called DMAA (dimethylamylamine) to OxyElite Pro and to a similar product, Jack3D. We were alerted to the addition of DMAA through more than 100 reports of illness, including six deaths, among people who used the products.
Consumers may look at a capsule or tablet, the forms in which many supplements are sold, and not realize our limitations in regulating dietary supplements. In October 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act expressly made supplement manufacturers responsible for ensuring that their products are safe. Under this law, manufacturers do not need FDA approval before selling dietary supplements. The burden is generally on FDA to prove that a supplement is unsafe before any actions can be taken to restrict its use or remove it from the market.
The law made an exception for “new dietary ingredients” (i.e., dietary ingredients not marketed in the United States before Oct. 15, 1994). Before supplements containing these new dietary ingredients – vitamins, minerals, herbs and other substances – can be sold, a manufacturer or distributor must provide FDA with information establishing their safety when used under the conditions recommended or suggested in the product labeling. USPLabs should have informed FDA of its plans to add aegeline to its dietary supplements, and it should have established the safety of aegeline in its products. Neither of those things happened.
We do not have the authority to evaluate and approve dietary supplements before they are sold to consumers. However, in this case we were able to invoke new enforcement authorities provided by FSMA to remove them from the market.
Key provisions under the new food safety law – mandatory recall and administrative detention – now play a critical role in allowing FDA to act quickly and decisively. We can now order a recall when there is a reasonable probability that an article of food is adulterated or misbranded under certain sections of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and there is also a reasonable probability that the articles of food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death to people or animals.
We also have the authority to administratively detain a food or dietary supplement to prevent its distribution if the agency has reason to believe the product is adulterated or misbranded.
We invoked our recall authority and warned USPlabs that FDA might order it to stop distributing the involved OxyElite Pro dietary supplements if the company did not stop distribution on its own and conduct a voluntary recall. USPLabs agreed to voluntarily recall the OxyElite Pro products and destroy all lots of the products, including remaining warehouse stock, which had an estimated value of $22 million. We will supervise the destruction of these products.
My colleagues and I will continue to use our new authorities, as appropriate, to make sure that the supplements you take will not put you in the hospital. We are committed to keeping you and your family safe, using every tool at our disposal.
Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., is Director of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs