(FORTUNE Magazine) – Congress in October passed a law granting makers of dietary supplements like vitamins and herbal preparations greater freedom to make claims about their products' health benefits. The pols said they wanted to secure better information and easier access to such products for consumers. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one out of three Americans has used some form of alternative medicine.

Now some regulatory officials are worried that the bill does not adequately protect public safety. Says William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud: "The law is a disaster for the American public." While prescription drugs go through rigorous testing to get agency approval, the new bill places the onus for proving a dietary supplement unsafe on the Food and Drug Administration. Says FDA nutrition scientist Lori Love: "That is unlike all the rest of foods and all the rest of drugs and any other regulated product."

Herbal devotees claim there's no reason to worry. The new law, they say, allows them to come to market inexpensively while safeguarding the FDA's oversight responsibilities. Sales of dietary supplements topped $4 billion in 1993, yet most companies in the industry are small and can ill afford the costly approval process drugmakers like Merck and Johnson & Johnson must undergo. Furthermore, natural products can't be patented, limiting their long-term earning potential.

Still, a report in February's Journal of the American Medical Association linking ten herbal preparations to greater risk of liver damage seems to indicate the need for a compromise that allows for better research. One possible solution, according to Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council, a non-profit research group: Have the U.S. adopt European standards, which place less of a burden on companies to prove that their products are effective but insist that companies carefully monitor the safety of those products once they are sold on the open market.

- Jacqueline M. Graves