'Bogus' Herbal Supplements Fail Ingredient Test: Investigation

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An investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office alleges that some store-brand herbal supplements sold in New York by Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC are "bogus" – in that they "could not be verified to contain the labeled substance, or ... were found to contain ingredients not listed on the labels." Some the ingredients that were detected include mustard and powdered rice.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters, dated Monday, to the four retailers demanding they pull the supplements from their shelves and provide additional information about the products tested. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s test results found that the store-brand supplements tested did not contain what is listed on the label, according to a press release from Schneiderman's office.

“In a good number of cases, there was no organic material in the product,” said Marty Mack, Executive Deputy Attorney General for New York. “In some cases, it was sand.”

According to the findings, the store brands of Gingko Biloba and St. John’s Wort at all four stores did not test positive for either herb. Walmart, Walgreens and GNC’s versions of Ginseng and Echinacea also failed their ingredient tests.

Americans spend billions of dollars each year on herbal supplements, with the products extolling health and wellness benefits.

The four companies named in the investigation have released statements to ABC News regarding the situation. A Walgreen Co. spokesman released a statement to ABC News stating the company’s cooperation with the investigation.

“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,” the statement reads. “We intend to cooperate and work with the Attorney General.”

Target said it is looking into the issue.

“Without the full report, we can't comment other than to reiterate that Target is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests,” the statement reads.

While GNC is focused on cooperating with Schneiderman’s office, the company is also standing behind its products.

“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,” a statement from GNC reads. “The methodology that we understand has been 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.”

In response, the attorney general's office reiterated it was "confident" in the testing methodology. "The industry has repeatedly attacked those who have conducted testing of these products in an attempt to verify their contents," a statement in response to GNC reads. "The University of Guelph has said that they are confident in their testing procedures and we are confident in our testing procedures. The burden is on the industry to prove that what on the labels is in the bottles."

Walmart initially told ABC News it would be “reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more.”

“At Walmart, we want our customers to have complete trust in the products they buy from our stores. It is our expectation that all suppliers conduct their business and produce products that are in full compliance with the law. Based on this notice, we are immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action.”

In an updated statement, the company said their suppliers did not report “any issues” with the products cited in the investigation, but the chain will take steps to remove the products from New York stores.

“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 have stopped selling them in New York,” Carmen Bauza, senior vice president of Health & Wellness for Walmart U.S. said in the updated statement. “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.”

Full statement from GNC to ABC News: In response to your inquiry, GNC states the following: • 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. • 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 that we understand has been 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. • We will certainly cooperate with the Attorney General’s office in all appropriate ways.