The New York State attorney general’s office on Feb. 2 accused four major retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from store shelves, according to a NY Times article. According to the article, authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at each of the four national retailers and determined that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels. Further, the tests showed that the supplements labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers and authorities suggested that in some cases these substances could be dangerous to those with allergies.
Among the attorney general’s findings, according to the article, was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens that authorities said contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, authorities discovered that its ginkgo biloba products contained only powered radish, houseplants and wheat, while three out of six herbal products at Target tested negative for the herbs listed on their labels. The agency also said they found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers at GNC.
Monday’s announcement marks the first time that a law enforcement agency has threatened the nation’s largest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it contends were deliberately misleading herbal supplements. The four retailers on Monday were issued cease-and-desist letters and the attorney general demanded that they each explain what procedures are used to verify the ingredients in their supplements.
The action by the New York State attorney general’s office promoted responses both from the Natural Products Association (NPA) and from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), which represents more than 150 dietary supplement and functional food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and companies providing service to those manufactures and suppliers.
“The full details and data the New York Attorney General found through the DNA tests have not been made available to the public,” said NPA CEO and Executive Director Daniel Fabricant. “We do not know exactly what was tested, and no labels of products have been shared. The Natural Products Association has confirmed with one of the retailers, GNC, that every product tested was a botanical extract, in which DNA is unlikely to be intact, making that test not fit for purpose. Therefore, if the study is using the wrong tool, that hardly seems newsworthy or beneficial for consumers. We encourage the New York attorney general’s office to release the full study details promptly, and look forward to reviewing them thoroughly.”
Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN, offered the following statement:
“These actions today by the New York State Attorney General’s (AG) office smack of a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health. 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.
Nor does the DNA testing method provide information on the amounts of food contaminants found in the products. This is important because there are well-established legal thresholds that allow for trace amounts of some ingredients like gluten, and trace amounts of DNA from rice, beans, pine, citrus, etc., that are not considered harmful or required on labels. Announcing the detection of minute amounts of these substances unnecessarily alarms consumers without informing them whether the detection of DNA from these substances poses any allergic risk.
Instead of giving companies a reasonable opportunity to respond to these concerns, the AG unfortunately chose to label them guilty without a fair trial. Not only is the testing method itself suspect for these kinds of products, but the scientist who developed the assay and conducted the testing is not a botanical or a food expert. He is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in testing DNA in dinosaurs and lizards.
Dietary supplement companies are required by law to adhere to good manufacturing practices (GMPs) which include identity testing for all botanical materials used. Different identification test methods, from simple titration to chromatography and mass spectrometry, are appropriate for different stages of the processing—from the whole plant to the extract, to the finished product. Companies identify all incoming materials and keep records of these test results, and those test results could have been shared if companies had been approached in a reasonable manner with a reasonable timeframe. The FDA, which enforces these identity requirements through routine inspections, does not require DNA barcode testing; nor should it, given that this novel approach has not been validated for finished products.
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. 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.”