The New York State attorney general's office is demanding that four large retailers stop selling their store brands of several popular herbal supplements. The supplements were tested and found to contain little or none of the herbs on the label and often contained things not on the label.
The retailers are GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, and Target and they received letters from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Feb. 2 demanding that they remove the herbal products from their shelves.
The six supplements tested at each chain were echinacea, ginseng, St. John's wort, garlic, ginkgo biloba, and saw palmetto. Only about 20% of the supplements contained DNA from the herbs listed on the labels. Some of the products contained substances that could be dangerous to people with allergies, such as wheat or soy. The capsules were contaminated with ingredients that included rice, beans, pine, citrus, wheat, houseplants, and wild carrot.
Walmart and GNC have said they will cooperate with the attorney general. GNC also stated that it stands behind the quality of its store brand supplements. Walgreens said it is removing the products from its shelves nationally.
The announcement was the first time that a law enforcement agency in the United States has threatened large chains with legal action for selling misleading herbal products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplement products when they were found to contain dangerous materials.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of Guelph in Canada found that as many as one third of herbal supplements did not contain the correct herbs. Under a 1994 federal law, supplements are exempt from the approval process the FDA's uses for prescription drugs, which requires reviews of a product's safety and effectiveness before it can be sold. Supplement manufacturers are expected to verify that their products are safe and accurately labeled, but they are not required to prove it.