Here's a case of a federal agency trying to reduce confusion--but it may be difficult to explain what's going on.

Back in 1973, the Food and Drug Administration decided to take a look at all over-the-counter vitamin and mineral drug products, paying particular attention to their "safety, effectiveness and labeling," according to the Nov. 27 Federal Register (page 57914).

An independent advisory panel was given the job and, after four years, submitted its report to the FDA. The agency followed in March, 1979, with a proposed rule to "establish conditions" under which the drugs "would be generally recognized as safe and effective and not misbranded."

But back in April, 1976, Congress had passed a law defining the FDA's authority to control vitamins and minerals when they were sold to the public as "dietary supplements" rather than drugs. The act also required the FDA to base any regulation of these products "on considerations of human toxicity rather than human need."

To comply with this law, the FDA in October, 1976, put out specific regulations governing standards and labeling of vitamins and minerals sold as "dietary supplements." Two years later, a federal court ordered these rules thrown out.

As fate would have it, the FDA revoked the rules on exactly the same day in 1979 that it issued its proposed rules on labeling these products as drugs.

"The coincidence in publication dates" of these two FDA rules on vitamins and drugs, according to the notice, "caused great confusion concerning FDA's intentions." Now, more than two years later, the FDA has decided to revoke the study group recommendations and start all over, in response, the notice says, "to the growing public sentiment expressed by the thousands of comments received from the public and by recent congressional interest in vitamin and mineral regulation."