Stevia Book Burning
For an herb that has been around for centuries and used by so many people without adverse effects, one might think that stevia would be a welcome addition to the roster of commonly accepted foods. Instead, its exceptional sweetness has made it the subject of much Kafka-type intrigue involving the FDA — even after passage of legislation that allowed it to be marketed as a dietary supplement.
The stevia story — which had previously been characterized by official ambiguity, secret “trade complaints,” a full-fledged “import alert,” and FDA searches and seizures — took another bizarre turn in May of ’98 when the FDA directed a Texas-based distributor of stevia dietary supplements, Stevita Company, to destroy three books on its history, benefits and uses. (One of the books targeted by the FDA was “The Stevia Story; A tale of incredible sweetness & intrigue” by Linda and Bill Bonvie and Donna Gates). The directive was the result of a determination that literature describing stevia’s sweetening capabilities somehow violated a ban on the labeling of such supplements as sweeteners.
In a letter to the company president, FDA compliance officer James R. Lahar wrote that an investigator would not only be coming around to take a current inventory, but would also “be available to witness the destruction of the cookbooks, literature and other publications for the purpose of verifying compliance.”
Destruction of literature? It was what the FDA later conceded was an “inartfully worded” statement — that is, worded in such a manner so as to pose a threat to the entire herbal industry. It was also the kind of language that hit the media right where it lives in the shelter of the First Amendment.
With the smell of burning books in the air, the Texas division of the American Civil Liberties Union became involved in the issue, as did media ranging from the Christian Broadcasting Network to newspapers in Texas, New Jersey and Wyoming. The story hit the Internet big time, with numerous news group postings and Web sites reporting on the situation.
Besieged by calls from reporters, the FDA changed its tune. In a letter to the firm that June, the agency authorized the release of the company’s stevia dietary supplement products from detention, and maintained it had “no issues” with two of the books.