New York accuses retailers of selling fake herbal supplements, orders halt in sales

Posted at 3:39 PM, Feb 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-04 16:29:39-05

What's on the bottle might not be in the pill.

GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart were ordered to stop sales of store brand herbal substances in New York Tuesday after DNA testing showed them not to contain their stated ingredients.

Overall, just 21 percent of DNA test results verified that the herbal supplements contained the plants they were supposed to. Walmart fared the worst, with 4 percent of its products showing DNA from the plants listed on the product label.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a statement. "The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry."

Many of the supplements were contaminated with other substances, like rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and carrots. These were not listed on the product label, which puts consumers at risk of an allergic reaction.

The investigation targeted six herbal supplements (Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, Ginko Biloba, Saw Palmetto and St. John’s Wort) sold in at the four major retailers in sites throughout New York State. There were 390 tests conducted on 78 samples.

Arthur P. Grollman, Professor of Pharmacological Sciences at Stony Brook University, said in a statement that the degree of adulteration was “outrageous.”

“Hopefully, this action can prompt other states to follow New York’s example,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that herbal supplements contain what’s on their label and register their facilities. However, unlike drugs supplements are not required to receive FDA approval to test for effectiveness.

About half of Americans take dietary supplements, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.