The New York attorney general's office handed out cease-and-desist letters to four national drugstores for selling mislabeled generic-brand herbal supplements.
Investigators found the store-brand supplements sold by GNC, Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens did not contain the advertised herbs in their respective products. The letters also state that some of the supplements tested by the attorney general’s office also contain potential allergens not identified on packaging.
“Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” according to the letters.
Through a process called DNA barcoding, which identified certain ingredients based on their genetic signature, investigators tested 24 products from the four stores for traces of seven different herbs – echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root.
Investigators learned 19 of the 24 supplements had DNA that was either unrecognizable or not from the marketed herb. They also discovered that five of the 24 contained wheat and another two had traces of beans. Both foods are known food allergens that could lead to reactions ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education, there is a food allergy reaction severe enough to send someone to the emergency room every three minutes. Most allergic reactions occur in foods thought to be safe.
While each of the suppliers misled consumers when advertising their respective products, investigators found the stores varied in the herbal composition of the supplements. None of the six Wal-Mart supplements tested by investigators purely contained the herb advertised on the bottle. One tested Target supplement resulted in an unqualified positive, while two others contained DNA from plants in addition to those reported on packaging.
Federal officials have trouble regulating the dietary supplement industry because the Federal Drug Administration does not have the power to enforce for these products. As supplements are not defined as food or drugs, federal guidelines expect companies selling supplements to regulate themselves.
Representatives from Walgreens said the store plans to remove the tested products from its stores across the country, while spokesmen for Wal-Mart and GNC said their respective companies would respond “appropriately.” Target could not be reached for comment.