More than a dozen types of popular store-brand herbal supplements are for sale in Illinois and across the country this week, but are not on shelves in the state of New York. The products were pulled after an investigation by the New York Attorney General raised safety concerns, and prompted cease and desist letters from the AG to retailers GNC, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Target.
NBC5 Investigates questioned the products were deemed unsafe in New York but were for sale elsewhere.
The multi-billion herbal supplement industry continues to be dogged by allegations of unsafe products, adulteration and controversial labeling protocol. Herbal supplement makers are not regulated by the FDA, which critics of the industry say invites lapses in safety from some of the manufacturers. Supporters argue that federal oversight is not needed, and say many makers adhere to voluntary quality standards.
Regarding the testing in the NY Attorney General’s investigation, some experts say the DNA bar code test used is a flawed protocol for this type of probe. DNA bar code testing searches for the whole plant and does not effectively detect extracts, according to Dr. Melinda Ring of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
"They didn't handle it in the right way,” Ring told NBC5 Investigates. "They needed to do another layer before coming down in such a strong position to say cease and desist and I don't think they did their homework."
Ring acknowledged there are some bad actors in this industry, which she says are in need of reform.
“There is no question that adulteration is a problem and action needs to be taken to stop those from being available to consumers because there's a great risk associated with that,” she said.
GNC, Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreen’s followed the AG's request and pulled the products in question from shelves, but stood by the quality of their store-brand products.
Walgreens went a step further and pulled the products nationwide.
"As a precautionary measure, we instructed our stores to pull the product from our store shelves nationwide," a Walgreen’s spokesperson said in a statement. "As an added safety measure, our computers also stop the sale of these items at checkout."
Consumers concerned about quality and purity of ingredients of herbal supplements can access two good resources, according to Ring. Her recommendations includ https://www.consumerlab.com/ and http://www.usp.org/.
In response to criticism of the testing methodology used, NY Attorney General Andrew Schneiderman’s office shared the following statement:
“Rather than attacking testing methods that have been validated by more than 70 published papers, the time has come for the herbal supplements industry to put concerns about what is and is not included in their products to rest. The fact is virtually every product we tested includes ingredients not listed on the packaging, and close to 80 percent failed to show any evidence that they included even trace amounts of what was advertised. This is ultimately a matter of public health, and when public health is at stake the burden is on this largely unregulated industry to prove what's in its products.”