regulations for joint supplements

New regulations are being established for equine joint supplement manufacturers.

Changes are coming across North America as to how the joint supplements we give our horses are regulated. In Canada, the eagerly anticipated new regulatory environment for veterinary natural health products has finally opened for business. The new Low Risk Veterinary Natural Health Products Program (LRVHP), administered by North American Compendiums Inc., allows equine joint supplement manufacturers to (at last!) apply for blessing from Health Canada on their low risk joint care supplements. And in the US, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a new “list” of animal feed ingredients that manufacturers can notify as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

So what does this all mean for you, the horse owner?

For Canadians it will mean that for the first time in history you can look for the LRVHP notification number on your product and enjoy a new level of confidence that the product is actually safe for your horse. While this might not seem like huge news (fact is, many of us assumed the products were safe before this new program came into effect), the reality is that the vast majority of joint care products were on the shelves without anyone investigating whether or not they were safe. Scary stuff. The new LRVHP program is a great first step at protecting the safety of our horses when they are receiving joint care supplements.

Does LRVHP capture all joint supplements?

While the program is a great start at identifying low risk products, many joint care supplements are not captured by this program. Only products containing ingredients specified on the “admissible substances” list are eligible for notification through this program. That means many herbal products containing herbs that don’t have documented history of use in horses would not be eligible. There is opportunity for manufacturers to apply to have a new ingredient added to the admissible substances list, but unless they can provide historical evidence of use and safety in horses, its pretty unlikely the substance will be added.

For now, the program is voluntary – companies don’t have to go through the trouble and expense of notifying their products if they don’t want to. So you likely won’t see your favorite joint supplement disappear from the tack shop shelf anytime soon, even if it isn’t eligible for notification as a LRVHP. But the days of Health Canada turning a blind eye to nutraceutical supplements for horses – and other animals – are fast drawing to a close. And you can be sure the government is working hard to develop another level of notification so that all veterinary natural health products marketed as equine joint care supplements are safe for consumers.

Does LRVHP protect consumers from products that don’t work?

Safety is king when it comes to LRVHP, but the program doesn’t solve all our problems with the joint supplements industry. It still leaves the responsibility of providing efficacious products in the hands of the manufacturer. And while many companies claim to manufacture products “based on science”, this science is almost always extracted from literature in the public domain and not from research on their individual blended product. This is a big problem.

Let’s take the example of caffeine (found in many plant species) and ephedrine (a chemical found in the ephedra plant). Taken separately, these chemicals are quite well characterized (and reasonably safe) stimulants. But their interaction when taken together has been implicated in a number of deaths in athletes. That’s the danger of presenting “science” for caffeine and ephedra separately without considering their interaction. So there is still a need for companies to take a responsible approach to marketing. That is, they must support their products with research that is specific to their product, and specific to horses.

The trouble is, research on horses is expensive and many companies manufacturing equine joint care products are small to mid-sized and won’t have much of a budget for research. The government does provide some financial help in this respect, but unfortunately many companies aren’t aware of these programs. And most don’t do this type of research.

What should you continue to look for?

While the LRVHP is an exciting and desperately needed step towards a more ethical and safe industry for equine joint care supplements, there is still a lot needed from consumers to drive this industry into the next decade. Owing to the apparent lack of governmental surveillance on product efficacy, it remains up to the consumer to demand efficacy research from their favorite supplement manufacturers. Without demand from the consumer, there is little incentive for companies to invest in this kind of work.

Secondly, the industry must always demand quality assurance standards that can protect them from contaminated or adulterated products. Such programs might be GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). Companies that comply with these third party audit programs will be more than happy to let their customers know, and these programs ensure there is traceability and compliance with outside regulatory bodies.

New programs in the U.S.

Canadians are not the only horse owners eagerly anticipating new regulatory rules for equine joint care supplements. South of the border, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently announced a new “list” of animal feed ingredients that manufacturers can notify as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

This new GRAS list for animal feed ingredients will slowly replace the old AAFCO system, which has generally been considered cumbersome and difficult to navigate. This new system will make it easier for companies to notify FDA when they intend to use new ingredients in animal products, and will protect consumers against potentially unsafe or uncharacterized ingredients. Again, like the Canadian program, there is no mechanism within GRAS to demonstrate efficacy of the product or ingredient. This information should be demanded by the consumer and provided through scientific evidence generated by the manufacturer.

Joint care supplements for horses have always been big business. And until the birth of the new LRVHP and GRAS programs for animal feeds, it has been risky business too. These new programs are an exciting indication of regulatory enlightenment in this dynamic area, but much remains to be fixed. And until such time, it is still up to you to seek out safe and efficacious products for your horses.