Union Tribune

July 11, 2003

Metabolife execs, worker face subpoenas in ephedra probe


WASHINGTON A House panel moved yesterday to subpoena two executives and an employee of San Diego-based Metabolife International who have balked at testifying about ephedra, the controversial herbal stimulant used in the company's top-selling product.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., signed the subpoenas for the testimony or appearance of Metabolife founder and co-owner Michael Ellis, board member and former chief executive David Brown and Daniel Rodriguez, described by the committee as "a nurse who oversees Metabolife's call complaint office," committee spokesman Ken Johnson said.

"They have been uncooperative with our investigators and unwilling to testify publicly," Johnson said. "That certainly raises some serious questions in our minds."

Metabolife spokeswoman Jan Strode said "senior officials," including new CEO Russell Schreck, would testify at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on ephedra scheduled for July 23.

"The company has cooperated with the committee and looks forward to presenting its views to the Congress," Strode said in a written statement. "Metabolife will continue to make appropriate company officials available for congressional testimony."

But Johnson said the committee is more interested in hearing from Ellis, Brown and Rodriguez.

"While Mr. Schreck has agreed to testify and may have some information that may be helpful about the future, we do not believe he can shed any light on past problems or practices," Johnson said.

Metabolife, which makes the popular ephedra-containing dietary supplement Metabolife 356, is one of several companies that have come under scrutiny by the committee. It is investigating ephedra after numerous deaths and thousands of health complaints linked to the largely unregulated substance.

The committee also has sought documents and testimony from representatives of professional sports leagues, citing the death earlier this year of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Ephedra, which is marketed as an energy booster and dietary aid, was a contributing factor to Bechler's heatstroke, a Florida medical examiner said.

The subcommittee plans to examine use of ephedra in the sports world at a July 24 hearing.

Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., who chairs the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, sent letters to 13 individuals this month asking them to confirm that they would appear voluntarily to testify and answer questions about ephedra.

Ellis, Brown and Rodriguez "have sent written responses through their respective counsels declining the invitation to testify at the July 23 hearing at this time," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who made the motion to authorize the subpoenas. The motion passed unanimously.

Johnson said the committee has gathered thousands of ephedra-related documents from supplement makers, sports leagues and the Food and Drug Administration.

Under significant pressure to act after Bechler's death, the FDA in February proposed stronger warning labels for ephedra products and said it would consider other regulatory steps, including an outright sales ban.

The House committee also launched its investigation in February.

"Clearly we're concerned about the growing number of deaths across America linked to ephedra usage," Johnson said.

The FDA claims that efforts to regulate ephedra have been hampered by a 1994 law that subjects herbal dietary supplements to far less federal scrutiny than pharmaceuticals. But critics say there is more than enough evidence to support a ban on ephedra and that federal officials have failed to act because of the industry's political clout, fueled by campaign contributions.

The industry counters that its products are safe if used as directed.

Strode, the Metabolife spokeswoman, said the company would "present a compelling case in favor of dietary supplements and their use before Congress."

"Metabolife supports consumer choice based on strong, science-based labels about the appropriate use of its products," she said. "Metabolife has consistently supported regulatory measures to bar the inappropriate marketing of ephedra products, including prohibitions on sale of products to minors or for inappropriate purposes."