Exporting supplements: Harder than shucking oysters

© iStock/jansucko
© iStock/jansucko

Related tags Nutrition

If the world is our oyster, why does the government make it so hard to sell vitamins? 

It’s time the U.S. began promoting our scientificly-vetted nutrition standards to the rest of the world. International trade and exports of dietary supplements can help bolster a range of U.S. nutrition industries. We know consumers in other nations love supplements made in the USA.  When we can export more products to other countries—particularly those with even greater nutritional deficiencies than here in the U.S.—we provide health benefits around the world and produce a healthy profit for U.S.-based companies.

So when the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) met last month in Geneva, the U.S. government had an opportunity to uphold the U.S. National Academy of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board’s (NAM-FNB) potency recommendations and to promote exports of supplements. Under consideration for adoption were proposals to set new Nutrient Reference Value (NRV) requirements (analogous to U.S. Dietary Reference Intakes) for vitamins D and E. While much of the work of the Commission (a governing body formed by WHO and FAO) leads mere mortals’ eyes to glaze over, what’s critical here is that once Codex adopts a NRV, participating countries—and there are over 180 of them—are required to accept imports of dietary supplements containing nutrient levels up to those NRV levels, and cannot refuse them or reclassify them as “drugs” by invoking more protective, less scientific approaches.

But in this case, the U.S. delegation let the opportunity slip through its fingers.

Just last summer, the U.S. FDA issued new requirements for the Daily Values (DVs) that will be used on Nutrition Facts​ and Supplement Facts​ labels in the U.S. FDA put the DVs for vitamin D at 20 micrograms/day and for vitamin E at 15 milligrams/day. The DVs represent those nutrient intake levels the U.S. government believes are necessary to assure the vast majority of Americans do not suffer from deficiency-related diseases like rickets, scurvy, pellagra and muscle weakness and are supposedly the result of the most recently available research on nutrient requirements. (The implementation of these rules have now been delayed for unrelated reasons, but no one is suggesting that the new DVs for vitamins D and E are too high; in fact, some U.S. scientists insist they are still way too low.)

Jim Griffiths, PhD

During the Geneva meeting, Codex adopted new NRVs for vitamins D and E, at 5–15 micrograms/day and 9 milligrams/day, respectively. The U.S. delegation had an opportunity to make a case for higher potencies in line with NAM-FNB recommendations. At the very least, the U.S. delegation could have pushed for the Codex Commission to send the lower recommendation levels back to the Codex nutrition committee for reevaluation, urging that committee to use current scientific data that strongly supports higher levels. Instead, the U.S. delegation sat silent.

It appeared that the U.S delegation did not want to offend its international counterparts, so in the spirit of compromise, it allowed these ridiculously low NRVs to sail through unchallenged. What this means is that other countries looking for an easy excuse to favor their own products over U.S.-made supplements can invoke supposed safety concerns to exclude higher potency U.S.-made supplements or treat them like pharmaceuticals.

Steve Mister

The U.S. delegation also offered that the NAM-FNB ought to have the final word in setting the DRVs, and until NAM-FNB has an opportunity to examine the most recent data on these nutrients, the U.S. could not endorse higher levels internationally. That argument collapses, however, because the state of current research was apparently strong enough for FDA to set new levels for vitamins D and E for the U.S.—but not for the rest of the world? Maybe, instead, it’s time for the U.S. delegation to take a stronger role in defending our science-based nutrition decisions to the rest of the world, and perhaps aid the export markets as well.

The U.S. may have another chance very soon. Later this year the WHO’s Nutrition Guideline Expert Advisory Group (NUGAG) is expected to release a new report on the health effects of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which will include an evaluation of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Many observers expect the report will be excessively conservative and restrained in evaluating the role PUFAs play in disease prevention and reduction, and will especially downplay the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids; that it will cautiously conclude that there is insufficient evidence to encourage more consumption of omega-3s (whether in fish or in supplements).

The U.S. delegation to Codex will have a chance to do the right thing if this plays out as some expect. The delegation can call the conclusions out as too fainthearted and watered-down. It can take a critical view of the manner in which NUGAG interprets the evidence to belittle health results. The delegation can demand NUGAG incorporate all the science around omega-3s in its analysis rather than cherry-picking only that data that supports a wishy-washy result. This is an opportunity for the U.S. government to take a stand. There’s still a pearl to be found in international trade of supplements.

We’re watching.  

About the authors: Steve Mister is president & CEO and Jim Griffiths, Ph.D., is vice president, scientific & international affairs, both at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.

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