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Walmart, Target and others under fire for selling bogus supplements

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Numerous store brand supplements aren't what their labels claim to be, an ongoing investigation of popular herbal supplements subjected to DNA testing has found, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday. Numerous store brand supplements aren't what their labels claim to be, an ongoing investigation of popular herbal supplements subjected to DNA testing has found, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday.
NEW YORK (KCTV/CNNMoney) - Maybe they just forgot to add the gingko biloba.

The New York attorney general has ordered Walmart, GNC, Target and Walgreens to stop selling certain herbal supplements that don't contain the herbal ingredient on the label, even in small amounts.

The demands came in cease and desist letters addressed to company executives that were dated Monday. The New York Times first reported the letters.

The letters included statements like: "No St. John's Wort DNA was identified." "No plant genetic material of any sort was identified in the product labeled Echinacea." And some contained allergens like wheat that were not properly labeled.

The tests were performed on samples of gingko biloba, St. John's Wort, ginseng, garlic, echinacea and saw palmetto supplements bought from stores in New York. Purchases were made from several stores and samples from each bottle were tested multiple times, according to the attorney general.

Tests showed that they were contaminated with substances including rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, houseplant and wild carrot. In many cases, unlisted contaminants were the only plant material found in the product samples.

The cease and desist order applies only to specific lots of the supplements. But the letters also requested information about the manufacturers and testing procedures to support its "ongoing investigation of this matter."

Overall, 21 percent of the test results from store brand herbal supplements contained DNA from the plants listed on the labels. The retailer with the poorest showing was Walmart, where 4 percent of the products tested showed DNA from the plants listed on the labels.

That investigation is "focused on what appears to be the practice of substituting contaminants and fillers in the place of authentic product," the attorney general's office said.

Local herbalists say they aren't surprised by the news.

“I'm not surprised that a business that banks only on the cheapness of their products is offering something that is low quality," Alex Dunsford of Phoenix Herb Company said.

Dunsford says FDA rules say whatever's inside has to be listed and stores like his do independent testing to make sure their labels are correct.

“A lot of low quality and inexpensive brands do not independently test their ingredients and it is a problem in the industry," he said.

"It is our expectation that all suppliers conduct their business and produce products that are in full compliance with the law," Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said. "Based on the testing performed by our suppliers we have not found any issues with the relevant products,  but in order to comply with the Attorney General's request...we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action...We take this matter very seriously and will be conducting side by side analysis because we are 100 percent committed to providing our customers safe products."

Target said it had not yet seen the full report but "is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests."

They added:

“We take these claims seriously and will continue to focus on ensuring that our products meet or exceed all relevant standards.

“We are partnering with our vendor to investigate the matters raised by the report and intend to cooperate fully with the Attorney General. While that investigation proceeds, Target will comply with the New York Attorney General's request to pull these products.”

GNC disputed the accuracy of the testing process but said it would comply with the attorney general's order to remove the products from New York shelves.

"We stand behind the quality, purity and potency of all ingredients listed on the labels of our private label products, including our GNC Herbal Plus line of products," said Laura Brophy, a spokeswoman for GNC. "GNC tests all of its products using validated and widely used testing methods, including those approved by governing bodies like the United States Pharmacopeia and the British Pharmacopeia."

“The methodology employed by the University of Guelph in testing our products has not been approved by the United States Pharmacopeia and may not be appropriate for the testing of these herbal products,” their spokesperson added.

Walgreens said it is removing the products from its shelves and takes the matter "very seriously."

“That's kind of frustrating because I try to watch what I eat and put in my body. If what's on the label is not correct, that's frustrating," Connie Stiers said.

Regulators have long cast a skeptical eye towards herbal supplements, questioning the benefits they promise, but they're subject to much less scrutiny than prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

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