Years after product recalls supposedly took them off store shelves, some dietary supplements having potentially unsafe prescription drug ingredients are still available for purchase, a study has determined.
Researchers making online purchases said they were able to obtain supplements with hidden steroids, ingredients similar to Prozac and Viagra, and a weight loss drug that has been linked to a risk of heart attacks.
The supplements were still widely available through websites an average of 34 months after U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalls, they said.
Of 27 products sold with promises of larger muscles, sexual performance, weight loss or other claims, 18 were found to contain ingredients not approved for over-the-counter use or prescription drugs that had been the subject of recalls, the researchers said.
Other substances, such a banned drugs and drugs that have not undergone testing on humans, were found in some products, said lead researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen from Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"What we found was alarming," he said. "The system for getting these drugs off the market is clearly not working."
One or more banned drugs were found in nearly 67 percent of the supplements purchased, the researchers said.
Insufficient oversight bye the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is one part of the problem; another is drug makers considering profits before public health, Cohen said.
Manufacturers recalled the supplements after the FDA expressed concerns about ingredients in the products, but such recalls are usual voluntary, he said.
Part of the FDA's responsibility is determining if such recalls have been successful in removing potentially dangerous products from the marketplace, he said.
"The FDA has a lackluster approach," he said.
The FDA's ability to regulate supplements is limited, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Dooren said, noting manufacturers and distributors do not require FDA approval to market dietary supplements.
"The agency faces the challenge of providing effective deterrents to prevent unscrupulous firms from fraudulently marketing and importing these products," she said.
"Even after recall and enforcement action against one major distributor, the product may continue to be widely sold" from other sources, she said.
Cohen urged stronger solutions, suggesting laws giving the FDA increased enforcement powers may be required to address the issue.
"There should be significant legal and financial consequences for manufacturers who the FDA finds to be continuing to sell these spiked supplements," he said.
The study on the supplements has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.