“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements”, replies New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Many popular herbal supplements at Target, Walmart and Walgreens stores across New York aren’t what their labels claim, according to DNA testing that has found numerous store brand supplements to be fake or highly adulterated and contaminated. The New York Attorney General’s office has sent letters to Target, Walgreens and Walmart concerning the potency of the of supplements- either they have what’s called “trace amounts” of the actual supplement/medicine, the rest of it being full of fillers, or it’s just out-and-out snake oil. according to The Associated Press. The products include Echinacea, ginseng, St. John’s wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto.
Schneiderman asked the companies to provide detailed information on production, processing, testing and quality control for herbal supplements sold at their stores.
“We take these issues very seriously and as a precautionary measure, we are in the process of removing these products from our shelves as we review this matter further,” said Walgreen spokesman James Graham. “We intend to cooperate and work with the attorney general.”
Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said the company is immediately reaching out to suppliers of the products and will take appropriate action.
The investigation looked at six herbal supplements sold at stores across the state. Testing was performed by an expert in DNA barcoding technology, James Schulte II of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. The DNA tests were performed on three to four samples of each of the supplements purchased. Each sample was tested five times. Overall, 390 tests involving 78 samples were performed.The testing revealed that all the retailers were selling a large percentage of supplements for which modern DNA barcode technology could not detect the labeled botanical substance, Schneiderman said.
Contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, and wild carrot. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.
“We stand by the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products,” said GNC spokeswoman Laura Brophy. “We will certainly cooperate with the Attorney General’s office in all appropriate ways.”
Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, which represents the herbal industry, called DNA testing “an emerging technology that has the potential to be useful in the future when it has been rigorously tested and validated.” He said identification of an herb through DNA testing must be confirmed with established analytical tools that herbal experts use, such as chromatography or microscopy.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires companies to verify their products are safe and properly labeled. But supplements aren’t subjected to the rigorous evaluation process used for drugs.
If a manufacturer fails to identify all the ingredients on an herbal product’s label, a consumer with allergies or who is taking medication for an unrelated illness could risk serious health issues every time a contaminated herbal supplement is ingested.
A DNA study conducted by the University of Guelph (Canada) in 2013 also found contamination and substitution in herbal products in most of the products tested. One product labeled as St. John’s wort, often used to treat depression, contained Senna alexandrina, a plant with laxative properties. One ginkgo product was contaminated with black walnut, which could endanger people with nut allergies.
Wal-Mart was the worst offender: None of its six supplements that were tested was found to contain purely the ingredient advertised. Target’s supplements were the least misleading of the lot — though that isn’t saying much, since tests on six of the brand’s products resulted in only one unqualified positive. Two of Target’s other supplements contained DNA from other plants alongside their purported ingredients, while the remaining three tested negative.
This investigation is just the latest in a series of blows against the dietary supplement industry. Supplements are not considered food or drugs, so they have long been only loosely regulated. Federal guidelines require companies to ensure that their products are safe and accurately labeled, but the FDA has little power to enforce that rule.
A 2013 study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research estimated there are about 65,000 dietary supplements on the market consumed by more than 150 million Americans.