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Hawai'i CFS

Risks from Vitamin Supplements

Center for Food Safety

Supplements made from the brains, eyes and glands of cattle may expose consumers to more risk from Mad Cow Disease than do meat products, scientists say.  This is because the consumer is directly exposed to the tissues that contain the highest concentrations of the mutant proteins that cause Mad Cow Disease.  As little as 100 milligrams of infected tissue would be enough to cause vCJD, but the recommended daily dose of most glandular supplements is at least 300 milligrams.  Dr. Michael Greger, who has done extensive research on Mad Cow Disease, agrees that the average dose could provide enough of the tissue needed to cause vCJD if the tissue were from an infected cow.[1]

In 2000, the FDA issued an “import alert” warning the health food industry not to use animal parts from countries infected with BSE in nonprescription drugs sold in health food stores.  Peter Lurie of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group responded, citing loopholes in the law.  Lurie asserted that shipments among countries make it difficult to determine the exact country of origin of many of the materials sold as dietary supplements in health food stores.[2]

Latest regulations on dietary supplements with bovine materials
In January of 2004, the FDA imposed new rules banning a wide range of bovine-derived material from FDA-regulated human food, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.  The banned materials include anything derived from cow brain, skull, eyes, and spinal cord of cattle 30 months or older, and a portion of the small intestine and tonsils from all cattle.  This includes products being imported from other countries.

Loopholes in the new rules
1.) For the dietary supplement industry, this rule is like a “rule of thumb.”  Dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the FDA – under the dietary supplement law, the FDA can only take action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.[3]

2.) FDA inspects less than 1 percent of all food imports under its jurisdiction.

3.) Animals other than cows get similar brain diseases, including “chronic wasting disease” in deer and elk in certain Western states and scrapie in sheep.  Since some supplement labels don’t reveal which animal the tissue used came from, this could be a problem.[4]

4.) Cattle over 30 months of age are not at a higher risk of BSE, as the USDA and FDA are assuming.  Since BSE has a long incubation period, symptoms may not show in infected cattle below 30 months, or 2½ years, of age, but disease is still present.  To date, cattle as young as 20 months have been diagnosed with BSE.


[1] Kawar, Mark. “Cattle parts in pills could spread risk.” Omaha World Herald, June 5, 2003.

[2] Gay, Lance.  “Concern over ‘mad cow’ entering through diet supplements.” Scripps Howard News Service, April 6, 2001.

[3] U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.  “Dietary Supplements– Overview.”

[4] Neergaard, Lauran. “Supplements Raise Mad Cow Concerns.” The Associated Press, February 05, 2001.

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