“Made in America” used to be both a sign of quality and a source of pride. But Americans care much more about saving money. That’s why so many of our consumer products—from clothes to electronics to toys—are coming from China and other low-wage countries.

We’ve learned the hard way that such products may not always meet safety standards. Lead in toys, for example, has led to a number of recalls. Toothpaste contaminated with antifreeze alarmed Americans for a few weeks, but not enough to change buying habits.

Most people assume that their medicines are still made in America. Nothing could be further from the truth. Experts estimate that 80 percent of the active ingredients in our prescription drugs come from abroad. Increasingly, this means India and China.

According to Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post, “Neither country has a strong drug regulatory agency.” The former head of China’s Food and Drug Administration was executed a few months ago because he accepted bribes from the companies he was supposed to be overseeing.

Don’t count on our FDA to protect you, though. The U.S. watchdog agency doesn’t have the budget or the manpower to inspect more than a handful of the hundreds of manufacturing plants in Southeast Asia. This year the FDA only plans to visit 13 out of 714 drug firms in China.

Often, FDA officials don’t even know where to look. Some senior FDA officers have said there are 2,100 companies that would need inspection. The Government Accountability Office estimates that nearly 7,000 companies will export pharmaceutical materials into the U.S. in 2007.

What difference does this make? In some cases, manufacturing overseas may meet high standards. A former pharmaceutical industry executive told us that the plants he has seen in India rival those in this country. But there have also been reports of drugs or ingredients being made in sub-standard overseas facilities that manufacture industrial chemicals, with no oversight to prevent contamination.

Generic drugs may be especially likely to contain imported ingredients. The whole point of generics is to save money. To get the price down below the competition, small U.S. generic drug companies may seek the cheapest chemicals abroad and do little testing.

Over the last several years we have received thousands of complaints about generic drug quality. You can read some of the messages by going to www.peoplespharmacy.com. Here is one example:

“I have ventricular fibrillation and have an implanted defibrillator and pacemaker. I was on Cordarone but when the generic came out I was switched over.

“Not long after I started taking generic amiodarone, I started having irregular heart beats and my defibrillator started shocking my heart. About $23,000 later, it was determined that the generic was not working for me and I was put back on Cordarone.

“My doctor had to write letters to the company to get them to permit me the brand name drug, but he could not convince them to give me the generic price.”

We have no way of knowing whether this reader’s generic drug contains ingredients from overseas. But the story indicates the potential hazard that can result if a generic is not identical to its brand name counterpart.

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  1. M.H.

    I had been taking an anti-anxiety drug which was changed from brand name to generic. The American brand was working wonderfully. This generic band was manufactured in China. I was then required to use the generic brand by my insurance company, and I immediately became more anxious and highly irritable.
    That lasted for three days, and by then, I was feeling so anxious and angry that the only explanation I could think might be my problem was this new substitute generic brand.
    I stopped taking the generic brand and returned to my normal (anxious is normal for me).

  2. JD

    What search engines or other resources exist by which one may check the country of origin of these products?

  3. JC

    I am very upset at all that is going on in medicines manufactured in China and India. I found out recently that taking a magnesium supplement stopped my Atrial-Fib, so I am seriously thinking of weaning myself off of the Toprol XL, Cardizem and Altace.They are beginning to give me generic brands, and I am honestly feeling like I am playing Russian roulette as the doctors seemingly are not taking this seriously enough to object! I do not want to risk my life so they can get the BIG PAYOLA while not caring for human lives.

  4. Diane Wilson

    Recently (last week) had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in generic Cleocin HCL 300mg. (Clindamycin HCL 300 mg). Read the ingredients list and discovered “Yellow dye (tartrazine)” which states aspirin-allergic people could have a reaction to the med. CVS dispensed the prescription despite the fact I provided allergy info when giving them the prescription.
    All pharmacies I’ve recently dealt with automatically dispense the generics. I find this disconcerting, as I’ve long considered pharmacists as the “fail safe” for meds. NOT ANYMORE! Also find many pharmacists have a rather cavalier attitude when questioned about it.

  5. jo ann

    Every time I fill a prescript I get a different mfg. The pill changes sizes and colors drastically. The last one is from APO in florida.. GENERIC FOR NORVASC LABEL AMLODIPINE. Is there any way we can check on unknown generic pharmaceuticals? Any agency we can contact?

  6. Not Soandso

    We continue to focus on toys as we should, but are ignoring the huge danger from the lack of proper labeling of medicine. Look in your medicine cabinet and tell me the country of origin for your prescription & non-prescription drugs. That’s right, no requirements for the country of origin on medicine. Your toys, shirts, & underwear must be labeled but not your pills. Are those fish oil pills from fish in a polluted pond in China…. who knows? Perhaps it’s because of the conflict of interest of the drug manufactures that don’t want you to know. Another example of the Government/FDA not doing its job….

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