Americans generally assume that the medications, foods and other ingestible products they purchase are safe. And why shouldn’t they? The United States has measures in place to monitor the quality of everything from the actual product to the integrity of its packaging, with additional ASTM standards and FDA requirements to guide companies looking to meet these regulations.
However, a recent case in New York state suggests that this may not be enough, especially when it comes to the often uncontrolled world of herbal supplements: on Monday, February 2, the state attorney general’s office accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and possibly dangerous supplements and demanded that they remove these products from their stores.
Likely prompted by a similar test conducted by the New York Times in 2013, the attorney general’s office reported that they had performed tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. Their tests showed that four out of five products did not contain any of the herbs listed on their bottles. In many cases, these supplements instead contained cheap fillers, such as powdered rice, asparagus, or houseplants, but in some cases, even these products could be dangerous. For example, one popular brand of gingko biloba sold at Walmart actually contained powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, despite a claim on the bottle that the product contained no wheat or gluten. This could have any number of negative effects on people with celiac disease or other allergies. Similarly, products at Target were found to contain powdered rice, beans, peas, wild carrots, and powdered legumes, which could be hazardous to people with allergies.
The attorney general’s cease-and-desist letters delighted a number of health experts who have criticized the unregulated nature of the supplement industry. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements are exempt from a number of regulatory measures, including those usually enforced by the FDA. Due to a federal law enacted in 1994 by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican funded largely by companies in the industry, supplements are exempt from the administration’s overview process. As a result, the FDA’s attempts to ensure product safety have been significantly limited; the agency is able to require that companies verify that their products are safe and properly labeled, but this essentially depends on the honor system. Likewise, the FDA has been able to target individual supplements, but only when their products have been found to contain dangerous ingredients.
It isn’t uncommon for these supplements to have serious consequences: in 2013, a tainted supplement reportedly caused an outbreak of hepatitis that affected at least 72 people in 16 states, causing three liver transplants and one death. Likewise, in December, an infant at a Connecticut hospital was given a popular probiotic supplement that was later found to be contaminated with yeast. The child later died, causing the FDA to issue a warning that because these products were not subjected to their approval requirements, the agency could not guarantee their safety.
In response to criticism, industry representatives have claimed that a handful of fringe companies were responsible for most of the problems. However, by targeting prominent retailers like Walmart and Walgreens, the New York State attorney general’s office has roundly dismissed this argument.
To test prominent supplements, the investigative team bought 78 bottles of the leading herbal supplement brands from a dozen Target, Walmart, GNA and Walgreens stores located across New York State. The agency then analyzed the products with DNA bar coding, a type of genetic fingerprinting that identifies plants and animals by looking for short sequences of unique DNA that can be quickly analyzed and compared with other samples.
This research method has been criticized by some scientists, who say that the manufacturing process could have destroyed the DNA of some plants, rendering them undetectable. However, other scientists have called the testing method sound. Moreover, representatives from the attorney general’s office have pointed out that the absence of DNA does not explain the high percentage of other ingredients not listed on supplement labels.
After receiving the cease-and-desist letter, Walgreens stated that it would remove the products in question from all of its stores nationwide. Walmart also announced it would reach out their suppliers and take “appropriate action.” In contrast, a representative from GNC stated that the company stood behind the quality and purity of their supplement. However, they said that they would cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Target has yet to issue a comment.