CHRISTOPHER CAMERON / THE STATESMAN
Popular chains like Target were targeted because of faulty store brands of herbal supplements. Brands were pulled from shelves for not correctly listing ingredients. CHRISTOPHER CAMERON / THE STATESMAN

The New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman delivered a cease and desist letter last month to GNC, Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens because store brands of herbal supplements did not contain the ingredients stated on the labels.

Tests show the products did not contain any of the herbs they said they did. Instead of medicinal herbs, they are said to have fillers like houseplants, powdered rice and asparagus.

The Food and Drug Administration has had little control over the supplement industry. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 exempts supplements from the FDA’s approval process for prescription drugs since they are considered foods, not drugs.

Dr. Arthur Grollman, director of Zickler Laboratory of Chemical Biology at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, is considered an expert on the topic and was asked to comment.

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“This study undertaken by Attorney General Schneiderman’s office is a well-controlled, scientifically-based documentation of the outrageous degree of adulteration in the herbal supplement industry,” Grollman said in the Attorney General’s Feb. 3 press release.

Grollman has not done research on this specific case, but has testified in the past to get Ephedra, a supplement that was linked to health issues and deaths, off the shelf.

“It took the FDA 10 years to get Ephedra off the shelf, but it took 3 days for the Attorney General to take these supplements off,” Grollman said.

Since there is no approval process, it is very easy for potentially dangerous supplements to reach the market and the FDA has an extremely limited control over supplements, Grollman said.

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“There have been no penalties against these [herbal supplement] companies, which has allowed these type of things to happen,” Grollman said.

Grollman has been a critic of the industry for some time now.

“I applaud the New York Attorney General for taking the additional step of seeking to remove these products from the marketplace,” Grollman said in the Attorney General’s statement, “as they can cause serious harm to consumers unaware of the actual ingredients in the pills and capsules they ingest.”

Since the cease and desist letters three weeks ago, the Attorney General announced that he would be targeting the manufactures of these products. He is ordering manufacturers to report the process of creating their herbal supplements by March 13.

Schneiderman wrote a letter to four manufacturers, including NBTY, Inc., which is located in Ronkonkoma and produces Sundown Naturals, Nature’s Bounty, Vitamin World and other brands.

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“The scientific community, public health officials, and others have raised serious doubt about the steps taken to ensure the safety and efficacy of the herbal dietary supplements taken daily by millions of Americans,” Schneiderman said in his letter.

Shneiderman also wrote that the New York Attorney General office will be conducting a broader investigation to see how retailers are going about representing and advertising their herbal supplements.

The current test used involves DNA, which allows scientists to identify plants and animals by looking for short strands of DNA and then comparing them to a national database. Some critics to this method say the companies use extracts of a plant’s active ingredients that may not show up in a DNA test.

“This is going to be the most revealing part of this case,” Grollman said about the mandatory reports on manufacturing.

Correction: March 3, 2015

A previous version of this article failed to identify the New York State Attorney General by his full name, Eric Schneiderman. 

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2 comments

  1. As noted in the front page article in the NYT today (3/30), GNC, the major herbal company in the US has embraced fully the use of DNA barcoding for herbal supplements and will institute this procedure promptly for identification of plant sources of their future products while discarding those that were removed from the shelves nationally, even though the latter were approved by USP.
    Hopefully, other supplement manufacturers and eventually USP will promptly follow suit. Consumers of dietary (herbal) supplements deserve no less than full transparencies

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