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Dangerous dietary supplements need greater scrutiny and better labels

New bill in Congress would require more information on supplement labels and provide the FDA with greater authority

Published: August 2013

Millions of Americans take dietary supplements such as multivitamins, minerals, and herbs to improve their health. While many supplements may be safe and effective, some contain ingredients that pose significant dangers to consumers.

In our September 2012 special report, "10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements," we detailed the risks associated with certain dangerous dietary supplements, such as products marketed for bodybuilding, sexual enhancement, and weight loss that were spiked with prescription drugs or synthetic steroids. USA Today recently reported on supplements that contained pesticides and banned chemicals.

Current law makes it difficult for the government to remove unsafe supplements from the marketplace. The Food and Drug Administration has only limited authority over supplements, and it doesn’t evaluate them for safety or effectiveness before they go on sale. Many supplement labels do not warn about potential dangers, so customers may not know the risks until they get terribly sick, or worse.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, firmly believes we need to strengthen the FDA’s authority over supplements and get more information into the hands of consumers.

A new bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would help consumers tell the difference between dietary supplements that are safe and those that have potentially serious side effects or drug interactions.

The Durbin-Blumenthal Dietary Supplement Labeling Act would require more information on product labels, give more authority to the FDA to require manufacturers to register their products and ingredients and provide evidence of any health benefit claims. It would also crack down on drinks and foods that are marketed as dietary supplements as a way to avoid FDA oversight.

“Though many dietary supplements available today are safe, we can’t ignore the growing evidence that there are some in the industry that are taking advantage of the system we have in place to make money selling products they know are harmful,” Durbin said. “Regulation of supplements can be improved to protect public health and it starts with making more information available to consumers and the FDA.”

Blumenthal added, “Consumers don’t know some dietary supplements are unsafe until they’re in the hospital, and by that time it’s too late. This commonsense, pro-consumer proposal will no doubt encounter a plethora of industry push back, but history and science are on our side.”

This bill would go a long way toward ensuring that supplement makers are putting safer products on the shelves, with better warning labels that help you make informed choices.

Policy & Action Update

There’s some progress to report on a couple of issues we’ve covered recently. Last week, a Senate committee approved a bill to require rental car companies to not rent any vehicles that are subject to safety recalls until they are fixed. We've been pushing for this reform for years, and with the rental car industry now backing the effort, we’re optimistic about the prospects. (The photo shows the aftermath of a 2010 accident in which two sisters died while driving a rental car that had been recalled due to a defect in a steering component. The car had not been repaired before they rented it.)


Separately, a House panel advanced legislation that aims to restore the right of consumers to “unlock” their smart phones so they can use them on other wireless networks. We think you should be free to take your device to another carrier, and this action moves us closer to that goal. But as the bill moves forward, we hope there are opportunities to improve the bill, such as by closing loopholes that could allow wireless carriers to water down your rights with hidden fine-print exceptions, and by extending the right to tablets, which more consumers are using in the same way as handsets. Both bills must be approved by the full House and Senate and signed by President Obama to become law, and we’ll keep pushing to help you get the consumer protections you deserve.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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