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Attorney General accuses retailers of selling dangerous herbal supplements

The New York Attorney General is accusing Walgreens, Walmart, Target and GNC of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements. In some cases the pills contained just powdered vegetables or houseplants.

While similar investigations have targeted the authenticity of supplements sold nation-wide, this marks the first time a state Attorney General has threatened legal action against major retailers.

The NY Attorney General DNA-tested multiple store-brand supplements from the four retailers and the findings were shocking. The Ginsing pill from Walgreens actually turned out to be powdered garlic and rice.

The Walmart-brand Gingo Biloba? It’s merely powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, despite the bottle’s claim it was wheat-free.

So why is this allowed to happen? The FDA does not regulate the estimated $60 billion-a-year supplement industry.

Doctor Paul Offit with Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and has been an active voice in supplement safety and regulations.

“The FDA did want to regulate these products in the early 1990s but the industry was powerful they had political influence and so you had the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which is called by ‘The New York Times’ correctly “The Snake Oil Protection Act” and that’s what it is. The industry got what it wanted and I think in many way consumers lost,” Offit said.

According to “The New York Times,” the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act passed in 1994 was the brainchild of Senator Orrin G. Hatch, who is a Republican of Utah and vocal supporter of supplement use. The newspaper reports he has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the supplement industry and repeatedly quashed legislation in the years that have followed that would have tightened restrictions on supplements.

Offit said consumers need to rise up.

“What amazes me about this industry is that it’s untouchable. It doesn’t matter about the fact that about every week the Food and Drug Administration is pulling one of these products off the shelf and it doesn’t matter that what may be on the label is not on the bottle. It doesn’t matter that these things aren’t what they claim to be. We just want to believe in them. It’s like religion. Why don’t we rise up and say, ‘Yes, we do want these things regulated so that we don’t get scammed’?” Offit said.

Being scammed is probably the least of your worries because the loose honor system supplements companies are believed to have had deadly consequences. According to the Times, in 2013, an outbreak of hepatitis struck at least 72 people in 16 states and was traced to a tainted supplement. Three people required liver transplants and one woman died.

“I think that the only way you can be assured that at the very least what’s on the label is in the bottle is to put a marker on there that said “USP Certified” – United States Pharmacopeial – and then you know that it has been subjected to third-party testing, that the label is accurate and also that it’s made under so-called ‘Good Manufacturing Practices’ or GMP conditions. And that’s the least of it,” Offit said.

I also reached out to Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., which offers herbal and homeopathic degrees. Dr. Sheila Kingsbury, who runs the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr, said what the New York Attorney General did is important and she supports it.

“This is a really good wake-up call to make companies adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices and we need to not necessarily eschew herbal supplements or other dietary supplements, but ask for better guidance and better protocols,” Kingsbury said.

She admits that it is tough for consumers to know for sure what’s inside an herbal supplement bottle sold at major retailers and that’s why she recommends consulting a certified herbalist if you’re thinking about going that route.

“We’re trained to know what herbs and the products that have the herbs in them, what they should taste like and smell like and a way of telling if it’s a good product or not. The average consumer doesn’t have that training,” Kingsbury said.

The New York AG has demanded that Walgreens, Walmart, Target, and GNC remove all supplements from shelves.

Walgreens has agreed to do that nationwide, Walmart said it would reach out to its providers and “take appropriate action,” Target has no comment, and GNC said it will cooperate with the Attorney General, but that it stands behind the quality and purity of its store-brand supplements.

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