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New York Attorney General Targets Mislabeled Herbal Supplements


Buyer beware is the warning today from the New York State Attorney General. His office tested the ingredients of some herbal supplements sold at Walmart, Target and other major retailers in his state. State investigators found the pills did not contain the ingredients as advertised. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The New York State Attorney General's office had sent cease-and-desist letters to GNC, Walgreens, Walmart and Target, calling them to stop selling some of their store-brand herbal supplements in New York. They include ginseng, St. John's Wort, echinacea and ginkgo biloba, a bottle of which I bought this morning at a GNC in Manhattan for $16.99.

And let's take look at the ingredients. It says there's ginkgo biloba leaf extract, also dicalcium phosphate.

But almost 80 percent of the pills officials tested did not contain the key plant ingredient listed on the label, and included fillers like rice and beans, and additional ingredients such as wheat, mustard or radish.

KIM PROVOST: Well, if it's true, then I - that's wrong.

WANG: Kim Provost of Plattsburgh in upstate New York stopped by her local GNC today and said she was upset by the news.

PROVOST: I shop at GNC not a lot, but when I do come in here, I'm expecting to get things that, you know, are healthy. And whatever they're advertising, I expect to be in the product.

WANG: Marty Mack, New York's executive deputy attorney general, says his office's testing shows little or no DNA of the advertised herbs in the product.

MARTY MACK: We are asking them to remove the products that we tested.

WANG: But Steve Mister, president and CEO of the herbal supplement industry trade group called Counsel for Responsible Nutrition, says he questions how government officials tested the pills and their results.

STEVE MISTER: The chemicals and the substances are still there. It's just that the DNA may not be recognizable through that test. The more appropriate way to test these products is using various kinds of chemical analysis.

WANG: Testing procedures that New York officials say the herbal supplement industry should disclose publicly. Marty Mack says the burden of proof now lies on the manufacturers.

MACK: The industry has responded by just saying, oh, your science is bad, you don't know how to test. The only people apparently that know how to test for these substances is the industry. Well, that's a problem, too. If others can't replicate what they're doing to ensure content, then it's hard to have confidence in that industry.

WANG: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does require companies to make sure their herbal supplements are safe and accurately labeled, but the supplements do not require FDA approval before they hit store shelves, unless the manufacturers themselves say there's a new ingredient in them. Paul Offit, a pediatrics professor at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has closely monitored the herbal supplement industry.

PAUL OFFIT: You're never sure that what's on the label is what's in the bottle. It's an honor system. I mean, the FDA ends up pulling about one of these products off the market every week when they're found to do harm, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

WANG: Walmart, GNC and Walgreens say they plan to pull the pills from their shelves in New York State as precautionary measures. Target is going a step further and will stop selling them nationwide and online. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.