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New York State Clamps Down On Herbal Supplements

DNA tests were run on supplements claiming to contain ginko bilboa, St. John's wort, ginseng and echinacea.
Chris Hondros
Getty Images
DNA tests were run on supplements claiming to contain ginko bilboa, St. John's wort, ginseng and echinacea.

Updated at 7 p.m. ET

Target says it will pull the supplements identified by the New York attorney general from its stores and website. The company says, with its vendor, it will investigate and will cooperate with the attorney general.

Walmart says it will pull the items from its shelves in New York, and that "based on testing performed by our suppliers we have not found any issues with the relevant products."

Original post:

If you are looking to herbal supplements to help improve your memory or vitality or help you to sleep, you may want to save your money. The New York State attorney general's office is asking four major retailers — GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens — to stop selling herbal supplements after tests found that many of them did not contain the herbs listed on their labels.

In a press release, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said DNA tests were run on supplements claiming to contain ginko bilboa, St. John's wort, ginseng and echinacea. Samples of the supplements were purchased from various locations around New York, and each sample was tested five times. In four out of five cases, the tests showed that the pills contained nothing more than fillers such as asparagus, rice, wheat or houseplants.

"This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage 'buyer beware' may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements," said Schneiderman. He added that the herbal supplements "also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients."

Schneiderman says mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal, and he's asking each company to provide more detail on the production, testing and quality control of the herbal supplements sold at their stores.

Walgreen immediately agreed to the attorney general's request to pull the supplements off their shelves. Walmart said it would reach out to its suppliers and take appropriate action. GNC told the New York Times that the company would cooperate with the attorney general "in all appropriate ways," but that it stood behind the quality and purity of its store brand supplements.

The response from the herbal supplement trade association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, was not as supportive. It called the attorney general's actions a "sting," and described them as reckless, which "smack of a self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health."

But David Schardt, senior nutritionist of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says, "the evidence for these herbs' effectiveness is sketchy to begin with." Schardt, quoted in the attorney general's press release, says if the advertised herbs are in many of the products, it's a sign the "this loosely regulated industry is urgently in need of reform."

The US Food and Drug Administration requires companies to verify their products are safe and properly labelled. But a federal law was passed in 1994 which exempted herbal supplements from following the same stringent guidelines.

The New York Times says the chief architect of that law was Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. The newspaper says Hatch "has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington to quash proposed legislation that would toughen the rules."

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.