WARNING: GNC and Three Other Major Retailers Accused Of Selling Fraudulent, Dangerous Supplements

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By  The New York State attorney general’s office accused four major retailers on Monday of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.

The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

The investigation came as a welcome surprise to health experts who have long complained about the quality and safety of dietary supplements, which are exempt from the strict regulatory oversight applied to prescription drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients. But the announcement Monday 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 deliberately misleading herbal products.

Among the attorney general’s findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, the authorities found that its ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

The attorney general sent the four retailers cease-and-desist letters on Monday and demanded that they explain what procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their supplements.

The New York State attorney general’s office accused four major retailers on Monday of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.

The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

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The investigation came as a welcome surprise to health experts who have long complained about the quality and safety of dietary supplements, which are exempt from the strict regulatory oversight applied to prescription drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients. But the announcement Monday 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 deliberately misleading herbal products.

Among the attorney general’s findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, the authorities found that its ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

The attorney general sent the four retailers cease-and-desist letters on Monday and demanded that they explain what procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their supplements.

The demands came in cease and desist letters addressed to company executives that were dated Monday. The New York Times first reported the letters.

The letters included statements like: “No St. John’s Wort DNA was identified.” “No plant genetic material of any sort was identified in the product labeled Echinacea.” And some contained allergens like wheat that were not properly labeled.

The tests were performed on samples of gingko biloba, St. John’s Wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto supplements bought from stores in New York. Purchases were made from several stores and samples from each bottle were tested multiple times, according to the attorney general.

The cease and desist order applies only to specific lots of the supplements. But the letters also requested information about the manufacturers and testing procedures to support its “ongoing investigation of this matter.”

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That investigation is “focused on what appears to be the practice of substituting contaminants and fillers in the place of authentic product,” the attorney general’s office said.

“It is our expectation that all suppliers conduct their business and produce products that are in full compliance with the law,” WalMart spokesman Brian Nick said. “Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action.”

Target said it had not yet seen the full report but “is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests.”

GNC disputed the accuracy of the testing process but said it would comply with the attorney general’s order to remove the products from New York shelves.

“We stand behind the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products,” said Laura Brophy, a spokeswoman for GNC. “GNC tests all of its products using validated and widely used testing methods.”

Walgreens said it is removing the products from its shelves and takes the matter “very seriously.”

Regulators have long cast a skeptical eye towards herbal supplements, questioning the benefits they promise, but they’re subject to much less scrutiny than prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

GNC:

Of the “Herbal Plus” brand supplements purchased and analyzed, only the Garlic supplement consistently turned up as containing what was advertised. One bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for containing DNA from the saw palmetto plant, while three others did not. The remaining four supplement types yielded mixed results, but none revealed DNA from the labeled herb, according to Schneiderman. In all, DNA results matched the labels only 22% of the time.

TARGET:

The retailer’s “Up & Up” fared the best of the four retailers, with DNA tests confirming 41% of the labels, but that still means that over half the products tested failed to contain what was advertised. The most consistent supplements were Garlic and Saw Palmetto. Echinacea was also somewhat consistent, says Schneiderman, though one sample apparently turned up rice DNA.

WALGREENS:

Subpar results here, with tests finding that only 18% of the tested Walgreens’ “Finest Nutrition” brand supplements lived up to their labels. Once again, Saw Palmetto was the most consistently accurate label, while Schneiderman says the others generally failed to show DNA of the advertised plant matter.

WALMART:

Which brings us to the worst-performing of the store-brand supplements. As mentioned above, only 4% of the tested “Spring Valley” brand herbal supplements showed DNA of the advertised herbs. None were consistently accurate, says Schneiderman, though tests showed some garlic in one Garlic supplement sample, and some saw palmetto in one Saw Palmetto sample.

Unlike medications, which are heavily scrutinized by the FDA, herbal supplements are not subject to a rigorous evaluation process. But you still can’t advertise that you’re selling one thing and sell consumers something completely different. That’s why Schneiderman’s office is looking at potential violations of New York’s General Business Law and Executive Law.

via NYTIMES

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