Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is used to criticism, the agency had better brace itself for a lot more of it.

The fire seems bound to get much hotter now that the FDA has formally announced its long-expected proposal to require that health claims on vitamins and other dietary supplements be truthful and scientifically valid.While the public waits for the rules to take effect next July, the FDA deserves credit for good intentions. One stated objective is to enable the public to make informed choices without needlessly restricting access to truly safe and effective dietary supplements. Likewise, it's hard to quarrel with the objective of requiring scientific support for products claiming to enhance hair growth, virility or memory.

But the public could feel better about the new rules than many Americans do if only the FDA didn't have such a dismal track record of foot-dragging and ineptitude.

Years after the rest of the world linked fiber with reduced colon cancer, the FDA tried to gag Kellogg's from touting its cereals as cancer-fighters. Today the FDA acknowledges just a couple of connections between a nutrient and health benefits: calcium and osteoporosis, and folic acid and the reduction of birth defects.

If the FDA's lethargic drug testing program is any indication, it could take the agency a decade to confirm and approve what Harvard scientists recently showed - that megadoses of vitamin E can reduce the risk of arterial blockage by 40 per cent.

The FDA regularly takes up to 10 years to approve new medications whose use is authorized by other industrialized nations in only two or three years. Likewise, the FDA needed five years just to draft proposed regulations in compliance with the Generic Drug Act that Congress put on the books in 1984.

And now this new task of passing judgment on dietary supplements is being shouldered by an FDA that is chronically understaffed, over-worked, and underfunded. That's bound to come as a bitter pill to the many Americans who have been buying dietary supplements for years without Washington's help and without suffering a worse side-effect than an occasional pain in the wallet.

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