FDA orders stevia distributor to destroy herb cookbooks

Tuesday, July 28, 1998

A Texas-based distributor of a dietary supplement called stevia is fighting a U.S. Food and Drug Administration directive that mandates destruction of about 2,500 cookbooks.

Oscar Rodes, founder of the Stevita Co. in Arlington, Texas, said the FDA ordered the action this spring because the books contain information about stevia. Although the product can be distributed as a dietary supplement, the FDA said Stevita had been illegally marketing it as a food additive.

In a letter to Stevita, James Lahar, an FDA compliance officer based in Dallas, ordered the company to destroy the “offending books” and said that investigators would conduct an inventory and “witness the destruction of the cookbooks, literature, and other publications for the purpose of verifying compliance.”

The FDA first notified Stevita last March of its concerns. In a letter, the agency said that stevia is an “unapproved food additive” and that inadequate testing on the product means that “significant safety concerns exist for the general use of stevia.”

The FDA sent a second letter in May 19 ordering Stevita to destroy all of its cookbooks and other stevia-related publications, noting that such literature promoted stevia as a food additive.

Rodes said his company complied with the warning by removing any mention of stevia's benefits from brochures and similar literature. He said Stevita also scaled back its Internet site by severing its links to other stevia sites.

Rodes said the extract of the stevia shrub has been used as a sugar substitute for more than 100 years, especially in Japan and South Korea. Some advocates claim stevia is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar and much healthier.

A native of Brazil, Rodes said he began investing in stevia 10 years ago and soon moved to the United States. For the past eight years, he's been importing and distributing stevia in the United States through the company he founded.

Although the FDA prohibited companies such as Lipton and Celestial Seasonings from using stevia in their products, the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 freed up the distribution of the product. But present FDA rules allow stevia products to be marketed only as dietary supplements without any mention of its sweetening properties or health benefits.

FDA officials declined to comment about the case.

Jim Johnstone, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who often handles cases involving the FDA, said the Stevita situation sounds more consistent with the FDA of 40 years ago than of with today's.

“If the books and the products were being sold together by the manufacturer and there were claims in the book the FDA didn't like, [40 years ago, it] was standard practice to treat it as labeling,” Johnstone said.

But Johnstone said the order to destroy books sounds inconsistent with current FDA practice. He said it was once a common practice for the agency to forbid the sale of books along with food supplements.

The FDA relented somewhat last month by allowing the company to continue selling The Stevia Story: A Tale of Incredible Sweetness & Intrigue by Donna Gates and Linda and Bill Bonvie and one other book. But the agency continues to require the Stevita Co. to not only destroy more than 2,000 copies of a stevia cookbook but to recall the cookbooks it has already sold.

“Have you ever heard about anyone recalling books?” asked Rodes, who estimates that he's sold about 10,000 copies of the cookbook through mail and Internet orders.

Rodes called the FDA's actions “absurd” and “very frustrating.”

“We have a right to sell these books,” he said. “If I can sell this product, but I can't sell the book, there's something wrong here. This is not Nazi Germany.”