Last May, shoppers watched in amazement as health inspectors swooped on health-food stores throughout Texas, removing hundreds of products including vitamin C, aloe vera gel and herb teas.
In Kent, Washington State, Food and Drug Administration agents recently raided the Tahoma Clinic, where Dr Jonathan Wright, a general practitioner, used injections of vitamins, minerals and amino acids to treat a variety of ailments. In the raid, captured on video by a patient and later broadcast on television, armed police and FDA agents wearing bulletproof vests burst into the clinic, ordering patients and staff to freeze. They confiscated vitamins, amino acids and allergy screening equipment.
Pharmacists have also come under attack. More than 400 non-prescription drugs, including staples such as calamine lotion, carry false claims, says the FDA. Despite the fact that people have been dabbing calamine lotion on chicken-pox rashes for years, the agency wants scientific evidence of its worth.
The FDA says the action is part of an effort to stop bogus claims being made for products which are not always safe. 'We know that a number of supplements and herbal remedies are toxic,' says Mary Pentergast, senior adviser to the FDA commissioner. 'Some herbs, for example, have high levels of heavy metals.'
Supplements can be harmful, she adds, referring to an incident in which more than 30 people died and 1,500 suffered neurological disorders after a contaminated batch of the amino acid tryptophan was sold, purporting to cure depression and insomnia.
'Congress is responding to the fact that practically every food or supplement has sprouted a health claim,' says Dr Pentergast. 'A teaspoon of oatbran added to a bread bun does not make a hamburger low in cholesterol, as some manufacturers claim. We are trying to establish uniform criteria so that all food and supplement claims are made in a truthful and informative way.'
The FDA's campaign does not stop at products for human consumption. It is also protecting man's best friend. In California, a pet-food manufacturer was recently charged with spiking dog food with vitamins which, the label stated, offered the animals 'a longer and healthier life'. Prove it, said the FDA. Sissy Harrington-McGill, the owner of Solid Gold Pet Foods, was sentenced to 179 days in a maximum security prison and fined dollars 10,000 when she refused to change her label.
The FDA says such actions are grounded in hard science and the law. But in California, where vitamins have replaced mantras as the means of achieving optimum potential, its activities have triggered considerable protest, which is spreading across the country. Demonstrators in Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York have taken to the streets with banners saying: 'Act now or kiss your vitamins goodbye.'
More than a dozen groups have been formed to lobby the White House and Congress. 'For God's sake, we're talking about vitamin C and Sleepytime tea,' says Alex Schauss, executive director of Citizens for Health, based in Tacoma, Washington State. 'Taking these products off the market has become a constitutional issue for a lot of people. It's a violation of private life and the freedom of choice.' And that goes for dogs as well as humans.