Dr. Scott Norton was browsing through herbal supplements when he spotted bottles containing not just plants but some unexpected animal parts: brains, testicles, tracheas and glands from cows and other animals.
The Maryland physician sounded an alarm: How can Americans be sure those supplements, some imported from Europe, are made of tissue free from mad cow disease?
Norton’s complaint has government scientists scrambling to investigate a possible hole in the nation’s safety net against mad cow disease and its cousin that destroys human brains.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has never been found in this country. Nor has the human “new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” that people in Britain, France and Ireland caught apparently from eating BSE-infected beef. The government has taken steps to guard against BSE spreading here, such as banning the importation of European beef imports and the use of even domestic cow remains in U.S. cattle feed.
But critics are pointing to some loopholes far removed from beef: Just what dietary supplements or bulk ingredients containing cow brain or nerve tissue might be slipping from Europe through U.S. ports?
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration quietly cracked down on some vaccine manufacturers after discovering they improperly imported certain European animal-derived ingredients. Supplements are far less closely regulated, and the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of all imports under its jurisdiction.
“It would not be difficult for a manufacturer of a dietary supplement to obtain a cow brain in Britain, crush it up, dry it up, and then if they wished get it into this country,” contends Dr. Peter Lurie, a physician and consumer advocate who is one of the FDA’s independent scientific advisers on BSE.
As for FDA catching such imports, “if they find anything, it’s good luck.”
Adds Dr. Paul Brown, the FDA advisers’ chairman and a BSE expert at the National Institutes of Health: “The worry is not that we’re getting all kinds of cow brain from mad cows into this country. The worry is that we could, without knowing it,” because the FDA lacks resources or authority to strongly police supplements.
Nor are imports the only loophole worry. Animals other than cows get similar brain diseases, including “chronic wasting disease” that afflicts deer and elk in certain Western states and scrapie in sheep.
Yet Norton discovered supplement labels that don’t reveal which animal the tissue came from, or the country of origin. Some don’t even clearly label animal tissue, merely listing “orchis,” for example, as an ingredient few laymen would recognize means testicles.
But of most concern are spinal cord and brain tissue, including glands found in the brain. Brown reads from one supplement label that promised half a gram of imported raw cow brain.
FDA officials contend the issue isn’t a huge concern. They note the majority of supplements are made from plants, not animals.
They also insist bovine-containing supplements mostly are made from safe U.S. cattle, citing an FDA prohibition on certain cow-derived imported ingredients _ although they couldn’t say how well inspectors enforced that import policy.
Still, the agency recently wrote supplement makers that it “strongly recommends” they take “whatever steps are necessary” to ensure products don’t contain ingredients of concern.
“Our radar is on alert. We’re actively reviewing” the issue, said FDA supplement chief Christine Lewis, promising to make public her office’s ultimate findings. So far, she said, “we have minimal evidence there’s a problem.”
The industry’s Council for Responsible Nutrition also calls the worry exaggerated, saying gland-containing supplements account for less than 1 percent of sales. Officials are trying to determine how much is imported and plan to meet soon with FDA.
Meanwhile, what’s a concerned consumer to think? The FDA’s Robert Moore suggests calling supplement makers to ask their source of animal tissue. “Just as if they’re buying a car they need to be active participants in buying these things.”
Lurie is more blunt: “I’m not taking any brain extracts, not a chance.”