NEW YORK — New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked Walgreens, Walmart, Target and GNC to stop selling certain store-brand herbal supplements because DNA testing revealed discrepancies with ingredients listed on their labels.
Schneiderman said Tuesday that he has sent cease-and-desist letters to the four retailers to halt sales of the supplements — which include echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort and others — in New York because they couldn’t be verified to contain the labeled substance or were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels.
DNA barcode testing conducted as part of an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office found that, overall, 21% of the test results from store-brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels, with 79% coming up empty for DNA related to the labeled content or verifying contamination with other plant material.
The state attorney general reported that 35% of the product tests identified DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels, indicating contaminants and fillers. Some of the contaminants identified included rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot, among others.
“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families, especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients. At the end of the day, American corporations must step up to the plate and ensure that their customers are getting what they pay for, especially when it involves promises of good health.”
In the letters, Schneiderman requested that the retailers provide detailed information about the production, processing and testing of herbal supplements sold at their stores as well as quality control measures. His office didn’t identify the manufacturers of the store-brand herbal supplement products.
Focused on alleged substitution of contaminants and fillers in the place of authentic product, the investigation looked at six herbal supplements sold at the four retailers in 13 regions across New York, including Binghamton, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Harlem, Nassau County, Plattsburgh, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Suffolk County, Syracuse, Utica, Watertown and Westchester County.
DNA tests were performed on three to four samples of each of the six herbal supplements — gingko biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto — purchased from the New York stores. Overall, 390 tests involving 78 samples were conducted.
Results of the testing included the following:
• At the Walgreens stores, six Finest Nutrition brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed. Of the 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 18% of the time.
• Six Spring Valley brand herbal supplements per store at the Walmart locations were purchased and tested. Of the 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 4% of the time.
• At the Target stores, six Up & Up brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed. Of 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products bought, DNA matched label identification 41% of the time.
• And at GNC, six Herbal Plus brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and tested. Of 120 DNA tests run on 24 bottles of the herbal products that were purchased, DNA matched label identification 22% of the time.
The New York attorney general’s office noted that if the makers of herbal supplements fail to identify all of the ingredients on a product’s label, consumers with food allergies or who are on medication may be taking a serious health risk each time a contaminated herbal supplement is ingested. The investigation is centered on potential violations of New York’s General Business Law and Executive Law, including deceptive practices and deceptive advertising.
The office added that while U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires companies to verify that their products are safe and correctly labeled for their contents, supplements don’t undergo the FDA’s rigorous evaluation process for drugs.
“As the sponsor of a measure that would require labeling that states whether a product has been evaluated by the FDA or not, and legislation to establish a dietary supplements safety committee, I fully support the attorney general’s efforts in this area,” stated New York Sen. Ken LaValle. “I will continue to fight for legislation that will provide adequate labeling information for the public.”
“Since 2005, I have sponsored legislation to create a dietary food supplements safety committee,” added New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. “This bill was crafted for the very same reasons the Attorney General is now targeting retailers selling generic supplements that may or may not contain the substances contained on the labels. I support the attorney general’s efforts, and I will continue to push for the passage of my bill to help reduce this kind of consumer fraud. We need adequate standards and better enforcement over these dietary supplements so consumers will feel confident knowing what they are buying.”
According to the Natural Products Foundation, the dietary supplement industry contributes an estimated $61 billion to the U.S. economy, the New York attorney general’s office reported. And a 2013 study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research estimated that there are about 65,000 dietary supplements on the market consumed by more than 150 million Americans.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade group representing the dietary supplement industry, criticized the New York attorney general’s investigation, in particular the validity of using DNA barcode testing for the herbal supplement products.
“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 barcoding technology is an appropriate or validated test for determining the presence of herbal ingredients in finished botanical products. Processing during manufacturing of botanical supplements can remove or damage DNA. Therefore, while a DNA testing method can be useful in some cases, this method well may be the wrong test for these kinds of products,” explained Steve Mister, president and chief executive officer of CRN.
Mister noted that dietary supplement companies are required by law to adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), which include identity testing for all botanical materials used. Supplement makers also keep records of the test results, “and those test results could have been shared if companies had been approached in a reasonable manner with a reasonable time frame,” he added.
“Responsible manufacturers and retailers take careful measures to ensure their consumers can purchase high-quality botanical supplements that contain what is on the label. We stand by the safety and regulation of these products,” Mister stated. “We urge the New York state attorney general to subject its own questionable testing methods to the same public scrutiny and peer review that he has called upon for our products.”