‘The Big Short,’ veterinary style: Can we trust supplement makers?

‘The Big Short,’ veterinary style: Can we trust supplement makers?

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Beware of low quality pet supplements at local pet stores and wholesale clubs. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I was watching the movie, “The Big Short” and could not believe what many of the participants of the subprime mortgage and derivative market were able to get away with. I was wondering if there was some sort of parallel in veterinary medicine, and veterinary supplements best fit the bill.  Veterinary supplements are a very big business.  Are we getting what we pay for?

Veterinary supplements can be divided into pre- and post-1994. Supplements, or nutraceuticals, were first coined by human physicians in the 1980s. A nutraceutical referred to any oral compound that is neither a nutrient, “nutra,” nor a pharmaceutical, “ceutical.”

Before 1994 all dietary ingredients not marketed as a supplement were subject to strict premarket safety evaluation by the FDA to prove the compound did not present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury. However, in October of 1994 human nutraceutical special-interest groups (lobbyists) were able to persuade Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This act restricted the FDA’s ability to regulate these products by no longer requiring premarket safety evaluation. What this means is, although the manufacturer is still responsible for premarket safety evaluations, the manufacturer is also able to decide what constitutes an assurance of safety.   

So what happens when the nutraceutical industry is allowed to self-regulate?  In a study performed at the University of Maryland in 2000, one particular supplement, chondroitin sulfate, was mislabeled in 9 of 11 products (about 84 percent of the time). The range of 0 percent (could not find any of the product as compared to what was labeled) to 114 percent (there was more than labeled) was found. The products that were the cheapest to produce (less than $1 per 1200 mg of chondroitin sulfate) were the worst of the bunch with 10 percent or less of what was actually on the label.

So the industry learned its lesson, yes?  Well … let’s flash forward to 2015.  In 2015 the New York State Attorney General’s Office brought suit against GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. Why, you ask? An investigation into these top selling supplements found that four out of five did not contain any of the herb on the label.

What was in there, you ask? Ground up rice, asparagus, radish and houseplants. OK, so the supplements were not top quality but there was no danger, correct?  Well, unfortunately these supplements also contained soy and peanut fillers that could be a real danger for those individuals with allergies.

That’s not to say that all supplement manufacturers are shady. There are plenty that are of very high quality and are very safe. These supplements are usually found through your veterinarian and are more expensive. So, before you brag to the veterinarian that you can get the same supplement at the local pet retailer or wholesale club ask yourself this — “If some of these companies show little concern as to what is in a human supplement, what do you think these same companies will put in pet supplements?”

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office.