Target, Walmart, Walgreens ordered to stop herbal supplement sales in New York


Among four New York retail chains, only 21% of store-brand supplements tested contained the plant material named on their labels.

New York’s attorney general has demanded that Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and GNC immediately stop selling store brand herbal supplement products in the state, following an ongoing investigation that demonstrated only 21% of the supplements tested contained the plant material listed on the labels.

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DNA testing on numerous different herbal supplements revealed that 79% of the products tested did not contain the herbal plant material or were contaminated with other plant material, such as French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot, rice, wheat/grass, and daisy. The six herbal supplements that were analyzed included Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto.

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Dr. James A. Schulte II from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, an expert in DNA barcoding technology, was hired by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, to conduct the investigation.

“The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “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.”

What was found

Three supplements sold at New York Target stores-Gingko Biloba, St. John’s Wort, and Valerian Root-contained no DNA evidence of the labeled herb. These products, however, did contain allium, French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot, and saw palmetto, according to the attorney general.

“Of the 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products purchased [at Target stores], DNA matched label identification 41% of the time,” noted in the investigational report.

Walgreens’ and Walmart’s herbal products had a worse track record, with only one supplement from Walgreens that was found to contain the labeled product, Saw Palmetto, and none of the supplements from Walmart consistently contained the labeled herbal product.

GNC’s tested herbal products were also problematic, with only one supplement that consistently demonstrated the labeled product of garlic. Of the 120 DNA tests on 24 bottles from New York GNC stores, only 22% of the time did the tests reveal the products on the label.

“I applaud the New York Attorney General for taking the additional step of seeking to remove these products from the marketplace as they can cause serious harm to consumers unaware of the actual ingredients in the pills and capsules they ingest,” said Arthur R. Grollman, MD, professor of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University. “Hopefully, this action can prompt other states to follow New York’s example and lead to the reform of federal laws that, in their current form, are doing little to protect the public.”


FDA drug recalls

Between 2004 and 2012, more than half of the FDA’s Class I drug recalls were for dietary supplements. Class I drug recalls cover products that can cause serious health problems or death.

In 2013, University of Guelph Professor Steven Newmaster conducted a study of 44 herbal products from 12 companies and found that only two companies produced products that matched the label and didn’t contain contaminants or fillers. Almost 60% of the herbal products contained plants not listed on the label. Newmaster used DNA barcoding technology in his investigation.

Newmaster, an integrative biology professor and head of the Guelph-based Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, noted in 2013, “There is a need to protect consumers from the economic and health risks associated with herbal product fraud. Currently there are no standards for authentication of herbal products.”

The herbal product marketplace is significant, with more than 150 million Americans buying dietary supplements, according to a 2013 study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

See also:

Dietary supplements: Beware of fake remedies

Warn about herbal supplement risks

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