New York AG orders removal of false health supplements

The Well Blog section of the New York Times reports that the State’s attorney general’s office “has accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves”.

According to the blog, the authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers – GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart – and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labelled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

While the US Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients in the past, the recent announcement was the first time that a law enforcement agency had threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it said were deliberately misleading herbal products.

Among the attorney general’s findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, the authorities found that its ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

Three out of six herbal products at Target – ginkgo biloba, St John’s wort and valerian root, a supposed sleep aid – tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

The attorney general sent the four retailers cease-and-desist letters, demanding that they explain what procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their supplements.

The Times says the attorney general’s investigation was prompted by an article it had published in 2013 that raised questions about widespread labelling fraud in the supplement industry. The article referred to research at the University of Guelph in Canada that found that as many as a third of herbal supplements tested did not contain the plants listed on their labels, only cheap fillers instead.