By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Secret Chinese vitamins

Many of the New Year's resolutions people make involve self-promises to behave in a more healthy way. I thought of this while getting ready to throw out a Chinese-language U.S.-published weekly magazine that a Chinese friend had used to cushion a present being sent me in a mail package. I couldn't read the Chinese, of course, but a full-page ad on the back page caught my eye. It was an ad for various vitamins, and, amidst all the Chinese, there was one piece of text in English clearly visible on each bottle: "Made in U.S.A." (Several of the bottles displayed American flags on the containers.)

This caught my eye because I know that health-conscious Chinese tourists coming to the U.S. to visit often buy vitamins to take home with their Louis Vuitton handbags and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches. They don't trust Chinese-made vitamins -- manufactured in an environment where safety regulation, to put it gently, is a work in progress -- worrying that they are adulterated at best and dangerous at worst. So the Made in America cachet signifies safety, backed up by U.S. government Food and Drug Administration inspections. Hence the ad I saw.

However, last fall, during a visit to a specialist about a health issue, I asked the doctor whether I should take a certain vitamin to help. He looked at me and said that not only was there no evidence that this vitamin helped (a problem that is occurring increasingly in studies, unfortunately), but that he himself avoided all vitamins because most of the ones we buy in the U.S. are -- get ready for this! -- made in China and probably harmful. In theory, Chinese-made vitamins had to meet FDA manufacturing standards, but he was not confident that the FDA has the inspection resources to check on compliance with the regs.

I proceeded to check the bottles of the vitamins I had at home. To my surprise, I discovered that none of them listed a country of origin. This was surprising, since I assumed that the law required that all products sold in the U.S. indicate where they are made. It turns out, however, that this rule does not apply to over-the-counter medication, and that a large proportion of vitamins sold in the U.S. (and aspirin as well) are actually manufactured in China. I would love to know the history of this exception to the law, particularly inappropriate since there may be a health issue at stake. (I will confess -- at the risk of generating hate posts to this blog -- that I am by no means normally a rabid made-in-America only kind of guy.)

Does any blog reader know any more about this? It strikes me as particularly ironic that many Chinese tourists may be buying vitamins in the U.S. because they trust our regulatory system more, only to be unwittingly purchasing vitamins from their own country.

BTW, a happy 2012 to all blog readers!

Posted on Jan 03, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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