During recent hearings on health problems related to liquid protein diets, an official of the Food and Drug Administration was asked if there was a similar danger from other diets employing powdered protein. Unlike liquid protein diets, these allow for the intake of some food.
"There has been an enormous amount of experience in obesity control with the use of" this product in diets "of a very, very wide variety of the order of 1,000 calories which are known to be safe," said Dr. Allan Forbes of the FDA's Bureau of Foods.
But despite such comments, the powdered protein industry has been caught up in the maelstrom of publicity surrounding the controversial liquid protein diets. And many manufacturers of powdered protein are facing financial ruin.
One of those manufacturers, Joseph E. Harris, president of American Protein Products, Inc., o,f Croydon, Pa., was in Washington last week to appeal to the FDA not to force makers of powdered protein to place warning labels on their products.
In an interview, Harris said he now employs 13 persons in his 41,000-square-foot plant - down from more than 100 at the end of October, just before the stories about liquid-protein-related deaths were relayed by the FDA to the public.
"Powdered protein has been around for about 15 years," said Harris, who has been in the business only for about a year. "And powdered protein is as far from liquid protein as apples are from Chevrolets.
"But the FDA has smeared the entire diet industry with one stroke of the brush," Harris said. He added that powdered protein diets like the one his firm promotes, along with its product, P86, are quite defferent from the manufacturers of liquid protein.
"When you our product, you take it with milk or fruit juice, and even more important, you are supposed to eat one regular meal a day, and it's a much higher quality of protein," Harris said.
Virtually all of the more than 40 deaths being investigated by the Center for Disease Control were users of the liquid protein diet that eliminates the intake of all solid foods and allows for only 300 or so calories of liquid protein to be ingested each day.
Even those deaths cannot belinked firmly to liquid protein. Federal drug officials have said that they can't say for sure that the deaths would not have occurred had the victims limited their daily intake to just 300 calories of any substance.
Until the FDA warned the public in a press conference late last year that there were dangers associated with liquid protein diets, sales of powdered protein were increasing at a rapid pace along with the liquid product.
"Our sales for the year until November were about $3.5 million," said Harris. "And they were going up. In June alone, we had sales of about $700,000. But in December, sales dropped to $57,000."
The fortunes of manufacturers of powdered protein rose along with the surge in liquid protein sales, to a great extent as a result of the liquid protein diet recommended in Dr. Robert Linn's book, The Last Chance Diet, a national best-seller.
But the problems that have been encountered by the liquid protein industry because of federal regulatory response to the health dangers apparently presented by liquid protein also have dragged powdered protein manufacturers down.
"It's just not fair," said Harris. "About 20 of the 70 or so companies that make powdered protein have already gone under.
"We are in the top five producers," he added, "and I could be out of business in a matter of weeks."
Harris said his firm and others are contemplating legal action aginst the federal government for "totally irrational and irresponsibel statements" made about the industry before any hard research data had been accumulated.
Says Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), chairman of the recent hearings looking into the liquid protein problem:
"I am troubled by the testimony. What concerns me, and I am very much sypathetic to what the FDA is trying to do . . . (is) a statement in the press that frightens a number of people into thinking that all diet supplements are the same and that there is a danger in the supplement itself when the danger might will only be in the abuse of that supplement.
"The FDA in its statements to the press failed to make distinctions in the ditets - consequently it has hurt some of the protein supplements.
"Government, in effect, by making a pronouncement that does not have credibility, confused the public, scares them, and destroys what may well be a very legitimate enterprise."
But FDA spokesman John Walden says "we are not drawing the distinction between powder and liquid protein. The problem is how you use the stuff."
He said there is a "range of quality" in both liquid and protein products, and the FDA has not issued statements about the quality of various supplements.
"If there is a financial problem being imposed on the legitimate parts of the industry, it's not a problem imposed by the FDA - but by some of their competitors who have put out low-quality materials for weight reduction without proper guidance," Walden added.