N.Y. AG Alleges Walgreens, Others Selling Mislabeled Supplements

After investigation, testing, Schneiderman asks retailers to halt sales of certain products

Walgreens herbal supplements St. John's wort (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores / Gas Stations)

ALBANY, N.Y. -- New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has announced that his office sent letters to four major retailers--GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens--for allegedly selling store-brand herbal supplement products in the state of New York that either could not be verified to contain the labeled substance or which were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels.

The letters call for the retailers to immediately stop the sale of certain products, including echinacea, ginseng, St. John's wort and others.

Schneiderman requested the companies provide detailed information relating to the production, processing and testing of herbal supplements sold at their stores, as well as set forth a thorough explanation of quality control measures in place.

The letters come as DNA testing, performed as part of an ongoing investigation by the AG's Office, allegedly shows that, overall, just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the products' labels--with 79% coming up empty for DNA related to the labeled content or verifying contamination with other plant material.

The retailer with the poorest showing for DNA matching products listed on the label was Walmart. Only 4% of the Walmart products tested showed DNA from the plants listed on the products' labels.

Using DNA barcoding technology to examine the contents of herbal supplements, the investigation is focused on what appears to be the practice of substituting contaminants and fillers in the place of authentic product. The investigation looked at six different herbal supplements sold at the four major retail companies in thirteen regions across the state, including Binghamton, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Harlem, Nassau County, Plattsburgh, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Suffolk County, Syracuse, Utica, Watertown and Westchester County.

The testing revealed that all of the retailers were selling a large percentage of supplements for which modern DNA barcode technology could not detect the labeled botanical substance.

While overall 21% of the product tests confirmed DNA barcodes from the plant species listed on the labels, 35% of the product tests identified DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels, representing contaminants and fillers. A large number of the tests did not reveal any DNA from a botanical substance of any kind. Some of the contaminants identified include rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant, wild carrot and others.

For Walgreens:

  • Six "Finest Nutrition" brand herbal supplements per store were purchased and analyzed: gingko biloba, St. John's wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto. Purchased from three locations with representative stores in Brooklyn, Rochester and Watertown.
  • Only one supplement consistently tested for its labeled contents: Saw Palmetto. The remaining five supplements yielded mixed results, with one sample of garlic showing appropriate DNA. The other bottles yielded no DNA from the labeled herb.
  • Of the 90 DNA test run on 18 bottles of herbal products purchased, DNA matched label representation 18% of the time.
  • Contaminants identified included allium, rice, wheat, palm, daisy and dracaena (houseplant).

Click here for details on the other retailers.

"We take these issues very seriously and as a precautionary measure, we are in the process of removing these products from our shelves as we review this matter further," James Graham, spokesperson for Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen, told The Chicago Sun-Times. "We intend to cooperate and work with the attorney general."