Nearly 90 percent of the imported mail-order drugs stopped at the borders in a special crackdown by government agents were potentially dangerous, the Food and Drug Administration said Monday.
The FDA has been one of the leading opponents of allowing U.S. citizens to skirt high domestic prices for prescription medicines and place orders in other countries, where the drugs are cheaper.
Of 1,153 imported drugs collected by FDA and Customs agents, 1,019 were found to be illegal. They included drugs that have been withdrawn from the U.S. market, animal drugs never approved for human use, counterfeit drugs, drugs with dangerous interactions, drugs with dangerous side effects and narcotics, officials said.
The drugs were collected at international mail arrival centers in New York, Miami, San Francisco and Carson, Calif.
Imported drugs have become a hot political issue in recent years with many Americans seeking lower-cost products from foreign sources. Buying drugs from Canada is particularly popular because U.S.-produced drugs cost less there.
Responding to public concerns about high drug prices Congress has been considering ways to permit at least some drug imports from Canada and other major countries. FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard said that even if the currently proposed bill were passed only about 20 percent of the drugs seized in the current crackdown would have been allowed through.
Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., sponsor of legislation to ease importation rules, said the FDA is trying "to undermine a legislative initiative the American people desperately want and need."
"Would anyone at the FDA seriously propose that the only way to ensure the safety of imported food is to ban importation?" Gutknecht said.
Hubbard said foreign governments do not take responsibility for the safety or quality of products mailed to U.S. consumers and his agency also cannot guarantee the safety of drugs made in plants it doesn't supervise, meaning the buyers are on their own.
Canada accounted for 15.8 percent of the imported drugs stopped. Close behind was India, 14.3 percent, followed by Thailand and the Philippines. Other countries included Brazil, China, Peru, Mexico, Fiji, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica and Vanuatu.
FDA Assistant Commissioner Steve Niedelman said the agency does not take any legal action against people who order the drugs, but does tell them that the products are being withheld by Customs. Narcotics, which are not allowed to be sold by mail, are turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration to be destroyed.
Hubbard said the actions were taken because congressional committees had questioned the agency about the volume of incoming drugs.