Senator McCaskill questions retailers, search engines about supplements targeting seniors

Ecommerce Associated Press

A senior Senate Democrat is probing retailers and online companies about sales of dubious dietary supplements, especially those promising seniors protection from memory loss, dementia and other age-related problems.

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The pills, tablets and formulas targeted by Senator Claire McCaskill bear names like "Brain Awake," ''Dementia Drops" and "Food for the Brain," which claims to ease "forms of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease."

In letters sent this week to 15 companies — including Wal-Mart, Amazon, Google and Walgreen's — McCaskill asks executives to explain how they vet dietary supplements and weed out products making false claims. The Missouri Democrat is the ranking member on the Senate Aging Committee, which frequently investigates health scams targeting older Americans.

"Frankly, I think there's a special place in hell for someone who markets a product and says it will cure Alzheimer's," McCaskill told The Associated Press. "And that's essentially what these scammers are doing and they've had assistance in that."

This is the latest probe into the $30 billion-dollar dietary supplement industry, which encompasses thousands of products and has long been plagued by questionable advertising, marketing and manufacturing practices. Supplements have never been subject to the same Food and Drug Administration regulations as prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which must be reviewed as safe and effective before being sold in the U.S.

Earlier this year, 14 state attorneys general asked Congress to investigate the herbal supplement industry. They pointed to DNA-based test results apparently showing that some store-brand supplements have none of the ingredients listed on their labels.

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McCaskill's probe focuses specifically on supplements targeting seniors who are concerned about dementia. More than 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no cure and prescription drugs only temporarily ease symptoms.

But rather than focusing on the supplements themselves, McCaskill's investigation is probing how they make their way into consumers' shopping carts and medicine cabinets.

In a letter to Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon, McCaskill asks for a briefing with the company to "better understand Wal-Mart's policies and practices related to dietary supplements."

A spokesman for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company said in a statement: "We appreciate the opportunity to share information about our supplement business and look forward to cooperating with the committee as appropriate."

McCaskill also requests similar meetings with grocery chains like Kroger Co., supplement seller GNC, as well as Internet search engines, including Google Inc.

"As one of the leading search engines that now provides a retail function through Google Shopping, Google Inc. plays a pivotal role in determining what supplements are being used and trusted," McCaskill writes in a letter to Google's CEO, Larry Page. She requests details about how Google is compensated by supplement producers who advertise through the search engine and whether Google reviews customer complaints about such products.

A spokesperson for Google declined to comment.

Companies are not legally required to comply with congressional requests, but they can be ordered to appear before Congress and turn over documents, when compelled by subpoena.

The new investigation shines light on how supplement makers skirt federal rules that are supposed to stop companies from marketing their products for specific diseases and conditions. A product called Eureka Intensified Focus, sold through Amazon, claims to "support and maintain memory, concentration and focus." Another product available on Amazon, AloeMarine, is promoted to support "increased memory and brain function."

A spokesman for Amazon Inc. declined to comment for this story.

Because the FDA does not review supplements, manufacturers are technically responsible for making sure their products are safe and truthfully advertised. Products making certain types of health claims are required to carry a disclaimer that "this statement has not been evaluated by the FDA," though many supplements do not.

The FDA frequently sends warning letters to companies that appear to be violating federal rules, but the agency cannot withdraw a supplement from the market until it shows that it is unsafe. Attempts to pass new laws giving the FDA more authority over supplements have repeatedly been scuttled by industry lobbyists and their allies in Congress.

Despite the FDA's limited powers, McCaskill suggests the agency could be doing more.

"They do have some authority here and we want to take a closer look at how they are using that authority," she said.

For example, the FDA can penalize companies for failing to register their manufacturing facilities with the FDA, and for not notifying the FDA of side effects reported by customers.

In a letter to the FDA, McCaskill and Senate Aging Committee chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, ask the FDA to turn over a list of all FDA actions against companies violating those rules since December 2007. They also ask the FDA to turn over information about its review of new dietary supplement ingredients. The introduction of new ingredients is the one chance regulators have to evaluate supplements before they launch.

An FDA spokeswoman said in a statement the agency would respond directly to the Senators.