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Store-bought herbal supplements may not be what they advertise

An investigation into store-bought herbal supplements found at many major retailers’ determined that four out of five products tested had no trace of the ingredients listed on the label. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman joins Gwen Ifill to discuss why the billion-dollar industry has such loose standards and who will now be responsible for keeping supplement labels accurate.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Health officials have long worried about the safety and quality of herbal supplements, a multibillion-dollar business.

    At least one major retailer pulled products from the shelves today after New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said GNC, Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens sell store brand supplements that do not contain the ingredients they advertise. The investigation found that four out of every five products tested didn't include the ingredients mentioned on the label.

    The attorney general joins me now.

    Mr. Schneiderman, tell us about how you reached these conclusions about this investigation, something called DNA coding?

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General, New York:

    DNA bar-coding.

    Yes, we have been aware for some time and there have been other studies about this that there were issues with herbal supplements. Unfortunately, the state of law and regulations is that the FDA can't require the herbal supplement industry to register when they manufacture or sell their products.

    This is essentially an honor system. So we decided to test the store brands of some major chains that sell in cities and towns all over our state and all over the country, and we were surprised to see that only 21 percent of the products had any trace at all of what they were supposed to be selling.

    So we tested things like echinacea, ginseng, things that are popular herbal supplements. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, there was no trace of the product that was purportedly being sold. So we have written cease-and-desist letters to these four chains. Some of them are pulling the products, just the lot numbers we tested off the shelves. They are going to explain their system for quality control.

    And I think that a lot of stores are going to follow this example and do the right thing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This raises…

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    But there really are no standards for manufacturing in this area, and a lot of people consume this stuff.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But this raises so many questions. There are some experts who don't actually trust this DNA bar-coding very much, and it's hard for those of us who have jars of this stuff probably in our medicine cabinets to believe that there's actually nothing on the label involved, engaged — contained in these jars of supplements.

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    Well, DNA bar-coding is a widely respected technique to find specifically what a plant species is.

    It uses small genetic markers that are specific to identifying species. Actually, most of the complaints are not that the technique doesn't work. Some people say, well, if something is processed, overprocessed, you can hide the DNA.

    The view of most scientists is, if you can't tell that there's any DNA at all, it's probably been denatured, and the benefit you're looking for may not be there. But we're going to give these companies a chance to show what their tests are. We have demanded that they provide us with their own explanation for how they do quality control.

    The key thing is this. It's illegal in New York and in most places to sell something that is not what the label says it is. You just can't do it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, what…

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    In addition to finding — we also found that there were a lot of fillers and other products and other plant species that were identified by the bar-coding that weren't on the label.

    So it's a combination of not selling what you're supposed to be selling and selling people things that are fillers or other plant species that could cause public health issues.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That's what I was going to ask you. What was in it? Powdered rice is something — one of the things I saw mentioned.

    But I guess my question then is, who — what averse health impacts might there be if you were to take these supplements which were not as advertised?

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    Well, there have been some instances where very serious outbreaks of disease were caused by contaminated probiotics or other herbal supplements.

    But it's really something that we're challenging these store chains to deal with. They are not the manufacturers. But we're trying to impose control through our own consumer protection laws, because that's what I have access to as the New York state attorney general, to put the burden on them to say, hey, you have to have quality control.

    Manufacturers may not have to register with the FDA, but you're not allowed to sell this stuff and label it in ways that are improper.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This is one of the questions I think everybody would have, which is, doesn't the Food and Drug Administration have some oversight over this sort of thing?

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    No.

    Unfortunately, a law was passed in 1994 that severely restricts what the Food and Drug Administration is able to do. There was an effort to amend it in 2012, and that was beaten back. It's been noted that Senator Orrin Hatch is a leading proponent of deregulating this industry. And there are others who support that.

    I think that consumer safety really does have to come first. And this is not the situation it was in 1994. We're talking about more than $60 billion a year of these products in the economy. It is time to impose some tighter standards of safety.

    In the meantime, in New York State, I'm going to use my consumer protection powers to make sure that nothing is sold to New York consumers that's not what it says on the label.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, if you are a consumer tonight and you're walking into your neighborhood health food store, what kind of precautions should you be taking to make sure you're getting what you're buying?

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    Well, what we have examined are the store brands for four big chains.

    We're not saying this is true of all the supplement industry. We think this is going to begin a process of these stores coming forward. And the sellers of the product really do have a responsibility under consumer protection and labeling laws. And we're really holding them accountable to go back and make sure that they have quality control and the manufacturers they choose to buy from people producing good product.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, thank you very much.

  • ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:

    Thank you.

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