NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sentcease-and-desist letters Monday to the heads of all four companies demanding that they stop selling their store-brand herbal supplements because DNA barcoding showed that 79 percent of them either didn’t contain the stated ingredient(s), or were contaminated by other filler materials such as rice and wheat to which some people might be allergic.
The companies were also asked to provide information to the AG’s office by Feb. 9 detailing how their store-brand supplements are processed.
“Of late, the topic of purity (or lack thereof) in popular herbal dietary supplements has raised serious public health and safety concerns, and also caused this office to take steps to independently assess the validity of industry and advertising,” the letters stated.
“Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” it continued.
Tests were done at the request of the New York AG’s office on the following store-brand supplements: Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, Valerian Root, Garlic and Saw Palmetto. Three to four samples of each supplement purchased in different parts of the state were tested. Each sample was tested five times, for atotal of 390 tests on 78 samples.
Schneiderman said that only 4 percent of Walmart’s supplements (“Spring Valley” brand) actually contained the ingredients listed on the label, while 18 percent did at Walgreens (“Finest Nutrition” brand), 22 percent at GNC (“Herbal Plus” brand), and 41 percent at Target stores (“Up & Up” brand). Only the GNC garlic consistently tested as advertised, according to the AG’s office.
“Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action,” a Walmart spokesperson said.
Walgreens agreed to remove the products from its stores across the country, even though only New York was requiring it to do so.
GNC indicated those particular products had been removed from its store shelves, but a representative said the company stands behind its supplements and that the testing methodology used by the AG’s office might not have been appropriate.
A representative of one supplement industry trade group called the DNA barcoding testing procedure “an emerging technology” which may not be appropriate for herbal products.
Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, said that herb identification using DNA testing should be confirmed with established analytical tools herbal experts use such as chromatography or microscopy.
Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, criticized Schneiderman for not giving the big retailers a chance to respond before going public with the test results, calling the move “a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health.”
However, some who view government oversight of the supplement industry as inadequate welcomed the AG’s investigation, the first time legal action against “deliberately misleading herbal products” has been threatened by alaw enforcement agency.
“Consumers already had ample reason to doubt most of the claims made by herbal supplement manufacturers, who have precious little scientific evidence indicating these herbs’ effectiveness in the first place,” said David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But when the advertised herbs aren’t even in many of the pills, it’s a sign that this poorly regulated industry is in desperate need of reform.”
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does regulate finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients, the agency does not require herbal supplements to go through the same verification processes as “conventional” foods and drug products to ensure that the products are appropriately labeled and safe for consumers.
According to FDA, manufacturers and distributers of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products to make sure the meet all federal regulations, and the agency is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.
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