Rite Aid: Where are our Prescription Drugs Made?

Product safety is one of my biggest motivators for seeking out American made products. In fact, my challenge was inspired by my commitment to ensuring the baby products I choose for my son are free of toxins. While I was pregnant the massive recalls of toys and other children’s products made in China weighed heavily on my mind. Like any new mother, I scrutinized every item I added to our registry. I read reviews, investigated ingredients and researched safety reports. But another variable was thrown into the mix, country of origin. If the regulation of our health and beauty products is sub-par, what about the medications and other health products millions of American consumers use every day?

Item found: Soap, vitamins, Tums, Neti-pot, cotton balls, toothbrushes, deodorant, cosmetics, greeting cards, coloring books, food items

Most common countries: China, USA, Japan, Israel

Corporate info: As one of the country’s largest chain suppliers of health products, Rite Aid has all the typical brands in their inventory. There appears to be little or no regulation on disclosure of country of origin. Many products only list where they were distributed from, which is undoubtabley somewhere in the USA. When I asked an associate for help in finding out where a bottle of infant pain reliever was made she did not know, but was “pretty sure they are made here.” For more information she suggested the customer service line.

There a polite representative explained that they do not have access to all of their inventory information, but if given the bar code number of any store product they are able to tell you were it was made. Within a few moments she was able to look up the medication and let me know it was from Germany. Another interesting observation I made while strolling the aisles of Rite Aid was that comparable brands for different items were often made in different countries at similar price points. For example, a children’s Reach toothbrush I found was made in the USA, while a similar brush by Oral B was made in China.

Overall: I’ve explored the issue of the lack of regulations for bath and beauty products in the past. My rule of thumb is that if I wouldn’t eat it, I try not to put it on my, or my family’s body. The skin is an organ, so everything we apply to it is absorbs into our system. But I never considered the issue of medications, the majority of which are taken by mouth directly into our bodies.

According to the FDA, 13% of generic prescription drugs are made in the USA, 43% in China and 39% in India. I guess the remaining 5% includes places like Germany, where the generic baby Tylenol came from, and Japan, where the generic Tylenol from CVS I have in my medicine cabinet was made. These over the counter medications at least contain labels with names and contact information for their distributors. When you get a prescription medication filled, generic or brand name, you are given a bottle with a few warning labels and no additional information regarding it’s ingredients, safety testing or where it was made.

According to a NYT article in 2009, the last major drug manufacturing plant producing antibiotics in the US closed in 2004. Those interviewed blamed this on the expense of manufacturing in the US where FDA regulations are tighter and inspections are frequent. The FDA is responsible for inspecting the quality and safety of finished products like imported pharmaceuticals, but it falls to the exporting country’s government to complete the inspections on the ingredients and manufacturing process. The information regarding the sourcing of medication by large American pharmaceutical conglomerates is not usually available because of their desire to keep their trade secrets in a competitive market.

Millions of Americans take prescription drugs every day. Regardless of the politics of big pharma or the debate about over-medicating, many of these medications are life saving. No diabetic should have to consider forgoing their insulin because they are concerned about the safety of their vial. I am not familiar with the regulations in this area, but clearly we need more transparency. If more of these medications were made in the USA and subject to the FDA regulations and inspections, this might be a great start to a safer prescription supply for everyone.

Have you ever checked to see where your medications were made? How safe do you feel taking medications made in countries like China? What do you think is the best way to ensure a safe supply of medication for Americans?