Major Retailers Accused of Selling Deceitful Herbal Supplements

According to an investigation by the New York State attorney General’s office into store-brand supplements at four national retailers, it was found that a number of their dietary supplements were found to contain the herbs shown on their labels, while many others included potential allergens not identified in the ingredients list.

In other words, The New York State Attorney General’s Office is demanding that the following four national retailers GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, and Target remove their store-brand herbal supplements from their shelves after the medicines were found to be packed with a strange array of deceitful and even hazardous ingredients.

Their popular supplements such as ginseng, valerian root, and St. John’s wort, which was sold under store brand names at the four major retailers were found to contain powdered rice, asparagus, and even common houseplants while being totally void of any of the ingredients on the labels of their pills.

This investigation is a welcome surprise to health experts who have long disapprove about the quality and safety of dietary supplements, which are excused from the strict regulatory oversight applied to prescription drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients, but this was the first time that a law enforcement agency had threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it said were calculatingly deceptive herbal products.

Among the attorney general’s discoveries was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, upheld for physical endurance and vitality, but contained only powdered garlic and rice.

Similarly, at Wal-Mart, the system found that Ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants, and wheat, even though there was a claim on the label that the product was wheat and gluten-free.

Three herbal products at Target, (namely – Ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, which is a sleep aid) tested negative for the herbs on their labels because they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas, and wild carrots.

At GNC, the attorney general’s agency said it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes (peanuts and soybeans), a risk for people with allergies.

The attorney general sent the four retailers cease-and-desist letters and call for an explanation on what procedures they use to authenticate the ingredients in their supplements.

“Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal, as they also pose unacceptable risks to families, especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.

The attorney general’s inquiry was prompted by an article in The New York Times that raised questions about extensive labeling fraud in the supplement business.

The article denoted to research at the University of Guelph, Canada that found that up to one- third of herbal supplements tested did not contain the plants listed on their labels, but only cheap fillers instead.

Industry representatives have argued that problems are only caused by a handful of companies on the fringe of the industry, however, the New York’s investigation specifically targeted store brands at the nation’s drugstore and retail giants, suggesting that the problems are widespread.

This is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry since we are talking about products at mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.

In response to the discoveries, Walgreens said it was taking the matter seriously and would remove the products from its shelves nationwide, while Wal-Mart said it would reach out to the suppliers of its supplements and take fitting action.

A spokeswoman for GNC said the company would cooperate with the attorney general in all right ways, but that it stood behind the quality and purity of its store-brand supplements, as they tested all of its products using certified and widely used testing methods.

The FDA requires that companies verify that every supplement they manufacture is safe and accurately labeled, and under a 1994 federal law, supplements are exempt from the FDA’s strict approval process for prescription drugs, which involves reviews of a product’s safety and efficacy before it goes to market.

The law’s sponsor and chief architect, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, is a steadfast supporter of supplements and has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry.

He has repeatedly intervened in Washington to suppress proposed legislation that would toughen the rules and did led a successful fight against a proposed amendment in 2012 that would have required supplement makers to register their products with the FDA and provide details about their ingredients.

It is all too easy for dangerous supplements to reach the market because they are not subject to a review or approval process, and under current law, supplements are assumed to be safe until the authorities can prove otherwise.

Meaning that they are only pulled from shelves only after serious injuries has occurred, which is seldom the case.

An example of this was in 2013 when an outbreak of hepatitis struck at least 72 people in 16 states and was traced to a tainted supplement.

Three people then needed liver transplants, and one woman eventually died.

Hospitals have also been affected. An infant at a Connecticut hospital died when doctors gave the child a popular probiotic supplement that was later found to be tainted with yeast. 

After the child’s death, the FDA issued a warning to the public (“These products are not subject to FDA’s premarket review or approval requirements for safety and effectiveness,” the FDA stated, “nor to the agency’s rigorous manufacturing and testing standards for drugs.”) that stated its limited control over supplements.

As part of its investigation, the attorney general’s office purchased 78 bottles of the leading brands of herbal supplements from a dozen Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and GNC locations, and analyzed the products using DNA barcoding, a technology that allows scientists to identify plants and animals by looking for short sequences of DNA unique to each organism, which can then be quickly analyzed and compared with others in an electronic database.

This technology can single out which plants a supplement contains by detecting its unique DNA.

The attorney general’s test results were so extreme that experts found them hard to accept. It was even possible that the tests had failed to detect some plants even when they were present because the manufacturing process had destroyed their DNA.

The absence of DNA does not explain the high percentage of contaminants found in these products, but the burden is now with the industry to prove what is in these supplements.

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