“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” Schneiderman said. “Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families, especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”
Schneiderman said the tested supplements were sold in 13 regions across the state, including Binghamton, Syracuse and Watertown, at stores operated by Walmart, Target Corp., Walgreens and GNC Holdings Inc.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the trade group representing 150 makers and suppliers of dietary supplements, assailed Schneiderman’s actions as “uninformed, reckless and inexcusable.”
“These actions … smack of a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health,” said Steve Mister, CRN’s president and chief executive officer. “Supposed concerns about the products in question are based on a novel testing method that has been roundly criticized by botanical scientists who question whether DNA barcode technology is an appropriate or validated test for determining the presence of herbal ingredients in finished botanical products.”
According to the attorney general’s office, the tests run on popular store brands showed that 79% of the products contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. In many cases, the supplements were filled with “contaminants” such as rice, pine, beans, wild carrot and house plants.
At GNC, for example, Schneiderman’s office found supplements labeled ginkgo biloba contained only rice, asparagus and spruce. And five of six samples from the GNC’s Herbal Plus brand of supplements “were either unrecognizable or a substance other than what they claimed to be,” according to the attorney general.
At Walmart, 4% of its herbal supplements contained the plant listed on the label, according to Schneiderman. At Walgreens, 18% of the supplements had the ingredient advertised, compared to 22% at GNC and 41% at Target.
CRN’s Mister questioned the qualifications of the scientist who conducted the tests, noting that James Schulte II of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., is neither a botanist nor a food expert but is an “evolutionary biologist who specializes in testing DNA in lizards and dinosaurs.”
Mister also criticized Schneiderman for using a testing method that he said does not provide information on the amount of food contaminants found in the supplements.
“Trace amounts” of DNA from rice, beans, pine and other food items are neither harmful nor required to be identified on labels, Mister said. “We stand by the safety and regulation of these products,” he added, and urged Schneiderman to subject his findings to “the same public scrutiny and peer review he has called upon for our products.”