CVS will now test all of the supplements sold on its shelves, the pharmacy giant announced on Wednesday.
Recent studies have found that hundreds of dietary supplements are tainted with unapproved drugs and ingredients.
But the US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have to assess or approve supplements before they hit store shelves and online retail sites.
So CVS has opted to take matters into its own hands – or rather putting them in the hands of a third-party.
It’s better than no oversight – but experts say that the FDA’s failure to oversee the products is backing CVS and other entities into doing their own assessments as a sort half-measure for regulation, or risk sickening consumers.
In lieu of FDA regulation, CVS has begun testing the supplements it carries, and discovered that seven percent of its products contained different ingredients from those on their labels
CVS says that 1,400 of its supplements have been tested by a third party to make sure that the ingredients listed on their labels match what is actually in the capsules, powders, gummies and more.
In 2017, Americans spent $43.2 billion on supplements.
Wellness trends have helped fuel the growth of the already booming industry – and it’s running largely unchecked.
The internet and advent of personalized health data – such as at home DNA tests like 23andMe offers – have allowed people to take a more active role in their own health and wellness.
But consumers don’t have the scientific training to analyze the supplements peddled to them as a way achieve their personal health goals.
And though the FDA does investigate supplements when it believes they may be contaminated, it doesn’t do so prior to the products’ sale.
It isn’t required to, and, as a result, countless contaminated, unapproved or misleading products may wind up online and on store shelves.
‘Unfortunately, because we have a very lax regulatory framework and the FDA is not doing its job, we’re left at the mercy of the companies making the supplements and the stores selling them,’ says Dr Pieter Cohen, an associative professor of medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance.
Dr Cohen, who actively advocates for safer supplements, is in favor of CVS’s move to test its products – even if it shouldn’t be necessary.
‘It does create more security for consumers that a highly qualified third party took a look and said, “yes, this is what’s in them,'” he says.
‘That said, we heard from CVS that seven percent – that’s almost one in 10 – of the products flunked the test.
‘That means that last year, if you were to buy supplements at CVS, that one in 10 was not accurately labeled or might have been contaminated.’
CVS did not reveal in its announcements which products failed the third party tests, or for what reasons.
The company also did not disclose how often it intends to continue testing supplements, or indeed if it has plans to do so at all.
‘It’s great that CVS went through this process, but unless they keep it up on a regular basis, whatever security we have today won’t be there in six months,’ Dr Cohen says.
Last year, an analysis of the FDA’s database of contaminated supplements found that 746 of the brands the agency logged between 2007 to 2016 were tainted with at least one pharmaceutical product that was neither labelled nor approved to be in them.
The FDA’s standard recourse is to get these products off the shelves is to issue voluntary recalls, which it only did for less than half of those contaminate supplements (for unclear reasons).
And even if the FDA recalled contaminated drugs, US law does not require supplements to provide human clinical proof that the products do what they claim.
Nor do CVS’s new tests determine that.
‘This type of testing does not tell us anything about whether the supplements will be beneficial for our health, nor does it tell us whether the supplements will be safe for consumption,’ says Dr Cohen.
‘It just means that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle, which is what we should expect, but now we can see that nearly one in 10 were not.’
Still, he says: ‘Anything like this is a step in the right direction, where a store says “we’re going to have proper testing.”‘