The New York Attorney General announced last month that a coalition of state attorneys general is investigating the herbal supplement industry’s business practices, taking a close look at how it markets and labels supplements. The investigation follows a revelation by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman that a study of a number of store-brand supplements from four major retailers showed that a majority of the supplements didn’t contain the listed active ingredient, and in some cases contained unlisted contaminants.
The attorneys general — from Connecticut, Indiana and Puerto Rico — say they’re launching the investigation to make sure that the supplement industry verifies its marketing claims, particularly in regard to the authenticity and purity of supplements. Schneiderman said in a statement:
New Yorkers and consumers nationwide deserve confidence that when an herbal supplement is represented as authentic, pure and natural, it really is. Clearly, the questions we raised about the herbal supplements sold in New York resonate outside of our borders.
Mislabeled supplements can be a danger to people with food allergies or who are taking medication, the state attorneys general said. If all the ingredients in a supplement aren’t identified on the label, consumers with food allergies take a “potentially serious health risk” every time they take a supplement, according to the state attorneys general.
In February, Attorney General Schneiderman ordered Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Walgreen Co. and GNC Holdings Inc. to stop selling some store-brand herbal supplements, such St. John’s wort, ginseng and echinacea, and asked them for detailed information about the production, processing and testing of the supplements. The announcement unleashed a number of consumer class actions against the retailers over the labeling of their supplements, which include Target’s Up and Up line, Wal-Mart’s Spring Valley supplements and Walgreens’ Finest Nutrition supplements. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to make sure their supplement products are safe and properly labeled, the state attorneys general said that the agency doesn’t demand that supplements go through its rigorous evaluation process.
In February, the New York Attorney General said that DNA testing showed that only 21 percent of the tested supplements contained DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels. GNC criticized the study, saying that the methodology used to test the supplements may not have been appropriate, though it and Walgreen have said they are pulling supplements from New York shelves. According to the New York Attorney General’s office, some of the herbal supplements contained rice, beans, wheat, citrus and other materials meant to act like “filler” in place of the actual supposed active ingredient.
The state attorneys general said that more than half of the FDA’s Class 1 recalls — reserved for products with a high risk of serious health effects or death — from 2004 to 2012 were for supplements. Ephedra, an ingredient in a number of herbal weight loss products, caused hundreds of deaths before it was banned in 2004, the state attorneys general said. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement:
The significant issues recently raised about herbal supplements are a concern that must be taken seriously so as not to further jeopardize the health and safety of people ingesting these products. As state consumer protection advocates, my fellow attorneys general and I are focused on efforts to eliminate misleading and deceptive labeling for the benefit of consumers.
According to GNC, it has commissioned independent, third party tests to verify its products’ quality. The company says “These tests, coupled with the company’s own testing efforts, confirm in no uncertain terms that our products are safe, pure, properly labeled and in full compliance with all regulatory requirements.” It will be interesting to see what develops from the investigations by the Attorney General. We will watch them closely.
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