ALBANY, New York (AP) — Bottles of Walmart-brand echinacea, an herb said to ward off colds, were found to contain no echinacea at all. GNC-brand bottles of St. John’s wort, touted as a cure for depression, held rice, garlic and a tropical houseplant, but not a trace of the herb.
In fact, DNA testing on hundreds of bottles of store-brand herbal supplements sold in New York state as treatments for everything from memory loss to prostate trouble found that four out of five contained none of the herbs on the label. Instead, they were packed with cheap fillers such as wheat, rice, beans or houseplants.
Based on the testing commissioned by his office, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday he has sent letters to the four major store chains involved — GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens — demanding that they immediately stop selling adulterated or mislabeled dietary supplements.
Schneiderman said the supplements pose serious risks. People who have allergies or are taking certain medications can suffer dangerous reactions from herbal concoctions that contain substances not listed on the label, he said.
“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” the attorney general said.
The herbal supplement industry criticized the method used to analyze the samples and raised questions about the reliability of the findings.
Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said the company is reaching out to suppliers and will take appropriate action. Walgreen pledged to cooperate with the attorney general, who asked the store chains for detailed information on production and quality control.
“We take these issues very seriously and as a precautionary measure, we are in the process of removing these products from our shelves as we review this matter further,” Walgreen spokesman James Graham said.
GNC said it, too, will cooperate, but spokeswoman Laura Brophy said: “We stand by the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private-label products.”
Target said it can’t comment without reviewing the full report.
Nutritionist David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the tests show that the supplement industry is in urgent need of reform, and until that happens, consumers should stop wasting their money.
A 2013 Canadian government study estimated there are 65,000 dietary supplements on the market, consumed by more than 150 million Americans. The nonprofit American Botanical Council estimated 2013 sales of herbal supplements in the U.S. at $6 billion.
The Food and Drug Administration requires companies to verify their products are safe and properly labeled. But supplements are exempt from the FDA’s strict approval process for prescription drugs.
Full statement from Target:
“Target is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests. We take these claims seriously and will continue to focus on ensuring that our products meet or exceed all relevant standards. We are partnering with our vendor to investigate the matters raised by the report and intend to cooperate fully with the Attorney General. While that investigation proceeds, Target will comply with the New York Attorney General’s request to pull these products.”
Full statement from Walmart:
“At Walmart, we want our customers to have complete trust in the products they buy from our stores. It is our expectation that all suppliers conduct their business and produce products that are in full compliance with the law. Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action.”
Full statement from Walgreens:
“We take these issues very seriously and as a precautionary measure, we are in the process of removing these products from our shelves as we review this matter further. We intend to cooperate and work with the Attorney General.”
Full statement from GNC:
“In response to your inquiry, GNC states the following:
•We stand behind the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products, including our GNC Herbal Plus line of products.
•The methodology employed by the University of Guelph in testing our products has not been approved by the United States Pharmacopeia and may not be appropriate for the testing of these herbal products.
•GNC tests all of its products using validated and widely used testing methods, including those approved by governing bodies like the United States Pharmacopeia and the British Pharmacopeia.
•While we firmly stand by the quality, purity and potency of all GNC products, we will remove the product lots named in the Attorney General’s letter from our stores in New York State to comply with the binding legal authority of this order, not because we agree with the testing methods used to support it.”