Sales of Natural Supplements Targeted by New York Attorney General

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, has accused four major retailers (Walgreen's, WalMart, Target and GNC) of selling fraudulent, potentially dangerous herbal supplements to consumers. Schneiderman has asked that the supplements be removed from the shelves immediately, via cease-and-desist letters. Tests conducted on the top-selling store brands of herbal supplements, found that a staggering four out of five products contained little or none of the herbs listed on the labeling.

Supplements Full of Cheap Fillers and Contaminants

Many herbal remedies contained cheap fillers such as asparagus, houseplants, and powdered rice. Others, contained substances which could potentially be dangerous to those with allergies. While the FDA provides regulatory oversight to prescription drugs, the quality and safety of dietary supplements are largely exempt from such oversight. The FDA does require herbal supplement manufacturers to verify the supplements are safe and accurately labeled, however the system largely operates on the honor code.

Canadian Research Finds a Third of All Supplements Contain Cheap Fillers

The investigation by Schneiderman was prompted by a 2013 New York Times article which raised questions regarding potentially widespread labeling fraud in the supplement industry. The New York Times article referred to Canadian research which found as many as a third of all herbal supplements tested contained cheap fillers rather than the plants listed on the labeling. Representatives of the herbal supplement industry say a handful of questionable herbal supplement manufactures give a bad reputation to the many ethical manufacturers, and that Schneiderman's request is unreasonable.

DNA Test Results

DNA tests were performed on three of four samples of each of the six herbal supplements purchased in New York from the four retailers. Each sample was tested five times. Some of the results for tested herbal supplements among the four retailers include:

  • At the GNC store, the following six " Herbal Plus" brand supplements were analyzed: Saw Palmetto, Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John's Wort and Gingko Biloba. Garlic was the only supplement which consistently tested for its labeled contents. While one bottle of Saw Palmetto tested positive for DNA from the saw palmetto plant, three others did not. One hundred-twenty DNA tests were run on the 24 bottles, and the DNA matched the labeling only 22% of the time. Contaminants abounded in the supplements, including asparagus, rice, primrose, alfalfa, clover, spruce, legume and allium.
  • The Target " Up and Up" brand of the same six herbal supplements, except Valerian Root instead of Ginseng was tested. Garlic, Echinacea and Saw Palmetto tested consistent with the labeling. The remaining three revealed no DNA from the labeled herb. Overall, DNA matched label identification 41% of the time. Contaminants in the Target supplements included wild carrot, pea, asparagus, French bean and allium.
  • The Walgreen's " Finest Nutrition" brand of Gingko, St. John's Wort, Garlic, Echinacea, Ginseng and Saw Palmetto were tested. Only Saw Palmetto tested consistent with labeling. The remaining supplements had mixed results, however of 90 DNA tests run, DNA matched the labeling only 18% of the time. Some contaminants included rice, wheat, palm, daisy and allium.
  • The same six " Spring Valley" herbal supplements from Wal-Mart were tested. None of the supplements tested consistent with the labeling. One bottle of garlic had a minimal amount of garlic, the remaining bottles produced no DNA verifying the labeled herb. 90 DNA test were run, with DNA matching the represented herbal supplement only 4% of the time. Contaminants included wheat, grass, rice, mustard, pine, citrus, houseplant, and tropical tree root. The ginseng supplement, promoted for "physical endurance and vitality," contained only powdered garlic and rice. The Ginkgo Biloba, promoted as a memory enhancer, contained primarily powdered radish, houseplants and wheat.

Supplements Exempt from Approval, Yet Have Potential Dangers

A 1994 federal law exempted supplements from the FDA's approval process; the law's sponsor, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, is a staunch supporter of supplements. Hatch has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the natural supplement industry and has intervened repeatedly in Washington to block legislation that would tighten the rules.

Yet in 2013 an outbreak of hepatitis which struck 72 people in 16 states was traced to a tainted supplement. One woman died, another three required liver transplants. In December, 2014, an infant at a Connecticut hospital died after being given a probiotic supplement by the doctor. The supplement was later found be contaminated with yeast. In the end, mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal, not to mention the unacceptable risks posed to families with allergies to the hidden ingredients.

Think your health has been affected by supplements? Call us at Golomb Legaltoday
at (215) 278-4449 for legal guidance.