FDA Breaks Promise on Proposed New Supplement RulesMay 1, 2012
The specific provision that FDA has decided to enforce is the one that says synthetic botanicals will no longer be considered New Dietary Ingredients and must never be sold as supplements, only as drugs. Last Friday, FDA issued a press release and sent warning letters to ten companies who sell supplements containing DMAA (dimethylamylamine), which is advertised to increase energy, concentration, and metabolism. The manufacturer says DMAA is derived from the Asian geranium—specifically, geranium oil.
In their warning letters, FDA said the supplements are technically classed as “adulterated” for two reasons: (1) DMAA has not gone through the NDI notification process, and (2) it is a synthetically produced botanical which, by definition, is not an NDI.
However, the claim that a synthetic botanical is not a dietary ingredient is nowhere to be found in the law governing supplements: the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). This new distinction comes exclusively from the NDI draft guidance, which is one reason we called it a perversion of congressional intent.
For years drug companies have studied plants for medicinal uses. As we noted recently, if they find a useful plant, the next step is to try to create a synthetic analog of the natural plant substance—a new molecule that can be patented and then taken through the FDA as a new drug. With this provision in the NDI draft guidance, FDA is giving drug companies a monopoly on synthetics, knowing full well that, in general, natural products cannot be patented while synthetics can, and only patented substances can afford to be brought through the hugely expensive FDA approval process.
The worst part is that FDA is now treating the guidance as if it has been finalized—something they promised not to do. In February, FDA held a meeting with the Natural Products Association (NPA), and explicitly told the group that until FDA finishes reviewing comments and releases final guidance, it would enforce only DSHEA and not the draft guidance. Now they’ve gone back on their word.
In addition, we would point out that FDA has still not addressed the many formal comments that were submitted on the synthetic botanicals question. We, and many others, said that FDA’s claim that synthetic constituents of botanicals are not NDIs while synthetic constituents of any other substance are NDIs is a completely arbitrary distinction. Taking action when they haven’t reviewed any of the thousands of pages in public comments makes a complete sham of the formal comment period. Moreover, FDA shouldn’t be enforcing a guidance when it is still in the draft stages anyway—that’s the point of it being a draft.
Worse, by going outside the bounds of DSHEA, the NDI guidance is basically creating new law, which the FDA is not allowed to do. Instead of issuing proper regulations and going through the formal rulemaking process (as is required when creating a new law), the FDA sidestepped everything by issuing a guidance. Technically, a guidance is not legally binding—which makes lawsuits difficult—but as feared, the FDA is enforcing the guidance as if it were.
DMAA is not without some controversy. Last year, two soldiers died after having heart attacks during fitness exercises, and both happened to be taking supplements that contained DMAA, though as of this writing, DMAA has not been conclusively linked to the deaths. A spokesperson for the manufacturer said that “there have been over one billion doses of DMAA-containing products taken without a single corroborated serious” health problem among people who used the products as directed. Just to be safe, the US Army is investigating, and the Defense Department has removed all products containing DMAA from stores on military bases until the safety review is complete.
If DMAA is proven to be unsafe, it should be removed, plain and simple. If it is a New Dietary Ingredient, then by all means it should go through the NDI notification process as outlined by DSHEA. But let’s just stop this nonsense about it being illegal because it’s a synthetic botanical—that is not a requirement of DSHEA. That requirement comes only from FDA, and it is not supported by law.
Here’s the crux of the matter: If FDA fully enforces this guidance as drafted, we will likely lose up to 29,000 nutritional supplements from the market, at an economic loss of between $5.6 billion and $10.5 billion; the nutritional supplement market could shrink by between 28% and 52.5%, producing an annual loss for the industry of between $7.84 billion to $14.7 billion; and between 55,720 and 104,475 jobs in the supplement industry could be lost.
Let’s be clear: this is not about DMAA. This is the FDA setting in motion its draft guidance, which threatens our access to more than half of the supplements we all need to stay and get healthy.
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