The New York State attorney general’s office has accused four national retailers of selling fraudulent dietary supplements – products that either did not contain the listed ingredient or were contaminated with unlisted ingredients, including possible allergens.
GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart received cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling a number of dietary supplements, the New York Times reports. The pills did not contain the herbs shown on their labels and many of the supplements included possible allergens not identified in the ingredient list. “Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” said the letters.
Investigators used a kind of “genetic fingerprinting” test to identify ingredients in 24 products claiming to contain seven different herbs: echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root. All but five of the products contained DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be, the Times reports. Five of the products contained wheat and two contained beans, though these potential allergens were not listed on the labels.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates ingredients in dietary supplements, but they fall under different regulations than those covering drug products and such products do not require approval before they reach the market. The FDA has taken action against manufacturers whose supplements contain hidden drug ingredients or do not contain the listed type and amount of an ingredient. Commenting on the New York attorney general’s action, Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, said, “If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry.” “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality,” according to the Times.