Your Pharmaceuticals and Supplements Are Made in China
None of the Chinese-produced drugs and supplements consumed by Americans are labeled "Made in China."
But it’s not just the highly contagious novel virus that has invaded the United States. The ruthless operation of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian government has been trusted with producing medicines, including critical components of prescription drugs and antibiotics, in many cases being the sole supplier to the U.S. Clearly, one lesson from this catastrophic pandemic is that is we are going to outsource production for any of our critical pharmaceuticals or medical supplies, that should not be to China.
So, why are so many Americans surprised to learn that we are dependent on China not only for critical pharmaceuticals, but essential over-the-counter medicines. Because there is no country of origin listed on all those products coming from China.
Take a moment to look at your over-the-counter medicines for gastric reflux and arthritis, or dietary vitamin supplements. Where are these products made?
You might see listed a point of distribution, especially if it’s an OTC brand or generic of a franchise like Walmart, Walgreens, or large big-box store. But what is the site of origin? Don’t bother; it’s not listed. Any other product you purchase made outside the U.S., is required by law to have a country-of-origin label, but none of the drugs and supplements in question have a “Made in China” label, which is why Americans have no idea how dependent we are on China for the bulk of these products, or how vulnerable we are given China’s lack of quality control when producing medicines many of us ingest daily.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2017 to 2019, gave staggering facts that exposed a dire weakness in America: We’re infected with the insatiable demand for cheap stuff. While his testimony focused on medicines, his comments should provoke us all to examine America’s supply chains:
Our drug and medical device supply chain is pointedly and precariously dependent on production in China for our finished goods. In many cases, it isn’t the finished drugs or medical devices that are being manufactured largely or exclusively in China. Nor is it the intermediate products like the active pharmaceutical ingredients (API). It is lower margin, low technology starting materials and components that — over time — have become sole sourced in China.
Sole source? That terminology does not work in a world with geopolitical tensions escalating and especially in the hands of the most populous country on the planet that devotes all its resources to its government and military, not its people. China is no friend to any other sovereign.
Just how precariously dependent is our drug supply chain to a communist nation? Gottlieb reported, “About 40% of generic drugs sold in the U.S. have only a single manufacturer. … Last year, manufacturing of intermediate or finished goods in China, as well as pharmaceutical source material, accounted for 95% of U.S. imports of ibuprofen, 91% of U.S. imports of hydrocortisone, 70% of U.S. imports of acetaminophen, 40 to 45% of U.S. imports of penicillin, and 40% of U.S. imports of heparin, according to the Commerce Department. In total, 80% of the U.S. supply of antibiotics are made in China.”
And our dietary supplements and vitamins are almost exclusively imports from China. The Alliance for American Manufacturing reported that as much as 90% of the vitamin C sold in America comes from the same nation that was producing dog treats that poisoned thousands of our pets and has been proven to hold great responsibility in this coronavirus pandemic.
There is very lax oversight for the production of key ingredients and products sold to American consumers. Why have all these products, which require very high quality control, been exempt from “Made in China” labels so consumers could make more informed choices about products?
In the case of dietary supplements and vitamins, since no claim or promised outcome is made in the sale or labeling of these products, testing for outcomes is not required — only that the ingredients shown in the label are tested to be present. But are those ingredients pure, contaminated, or less than the label might present?
So, the question remains, who exempted those country of origin labels in the first place? Surely not one of those agencies overseeing our response to the CV19 epidemic.
Well, actually, yes.
The fact is, the FDA exempts requirements for nation-of-original information on OTC products and vitamins, as well as prescription medications, most of which originate in China or India. Under FDA rules, distributors of prescription drugs are required to disclose the name of the manufacturer, but if the final product is combined or pressed in the U.S., there is no requirement to disclose that active ingredients come from China. The Tariff Act of 1930 requires that all foreign goods be labeled “in such manner as to indicate to an ultimate purchaser in the United States the English name of the country of origin of the article.” But there is an exemption that no labeling is required for “articles to be processed in the United States by the importer.”
According to Rohit Deshpande, Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, who has studied country-of-origin branding for years: “The pharmaceutical industry does not want you to know where its drugs are from. The moment people find out that these products largely come from China and India, they want to know why they’re not cheaper. The industry’s motivation in hiding this is to maintain very high prices.”
Deshpande adds, “When you pick up a package of cereal, you can see the major ingredients and where it was made.” But not true for prescription drugs because “the industry’s lobbyists are too powerful.”
The same is true for vitamins and supplements.
When he was an FDA government regulator, Steve Mister said: “We walk a fine line. We want to protect consumers, but we also don’t want to alarm consumers so they stay away from the whole marketplace. We are concerned that if we alert consumers, we may unnecessarily drive them away from the marketplace. We could make them afraid to take legitimate dietary supplements.” He now heads of a dietary supplement manufacturer trade association outfit called Council for Responsible Nutrition, charged with protecting the producers and sellers of vitamins and supplements, but his statement when with the FDA sounds very much as if he was already making sure not to “drive [consumers] away from the marketplace.”
The fact is, any changes to the FDA rules regarding active pharmaceutical ingredients or supplements would require congressional action — action that is long overdue.
While the media is squawking and sparring around the politics of this pandemic, Americans would be greatly served to understand a real need to see legislative action to scrutinize imports from China, and to support doing what the Trump administration set out to do on Day One: Bring critical manufacturing home to America. Instead, the nation watches House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) holding up funding to get into the hands of workers forced to be idle by this novel virus, as well as impeding important legislation like the proposal by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
Blackburn’s proposal would do what Peter Navarro, the director of White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, has declared in an executive order drafted to Buy American for the U.S. military, Veterans Affairs, and the national strategic stockpile. The Tennessee senator’s Securing America’s Medicine Cabinet would increase the volume of APIs from the incredible low of 28% currently to ensure not just quality of products but also critical access.
That is a start, but the bottom line, as Mark Alexander notes, is the label “Made In China” should be on every medication and supplement which originates in China, not just as an indication of where it was made, but a warning to the consumer.
Finally, the Most-Favored Nation status enjoyed by China throughout the 1990s, which paved the way to membership in the World Trade Organization, has turned watchful eyes into blind eyes. Our national leaders must first implement rules regarding full disclosure of countries of origin for all drugs and supplements in order to uncouple our nation’s dependence on those products.
(This column was expanded to include research from Mark Alexander, who has long been an advocate of full disclosure of manufacturing nation-of-origin labelling on all drug and supplement products sold in the U.S.)