A much-touted recent investigation by the New York State Attorney general’s office claimed national store brand herbal supplements sold at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart in fact did not contain the herbs shown on their labels. Instead they found such things as mustard, wheat, radish and other substances.  All four stores were given cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling a number of these supplements.

It was claimed that few of the products investigated were found to contain the herbs on the labels and many may have contained potential allergens that were not identified on the list.

According to the New York Times, the letters stated that “contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers.”

The American Botanical Council (ABC) quickly issued a rejoinder to the action of the NY AG in a press release “ABC Says New York Attorney General Misused DNA Testing for Herbal Supplements, Should Also Have Used Other Test Methods as Controls.”

As an herbalist I’m well aware that there is and historically has always been a problem of contamination and adulteration of herbs. I’m all for the Attorney General of New York or any other regulatory agency serving as a watchdog and enforcement agency for such matters. I do not hold any great sympathy for the companies that were investigated and found at fault. When it comes to herbs, I’m more in favor of customers purchasing from reputable manufacturers whose specialty is manufacturing and marketing herbal products. Ideally it would be reasonable and much better if such companies had actual herbalists as part of their staff.

The problem with this overzealous and misguided investigation is that the only method for testing they used is a process called DNA barcoding, which identifies individual ingredients through a kind of “genetic fingerprinting.” “DNA” has a ring to it that is particularly appropriate if a prosecuting attorney is seeking the conviction of a serial rapist or sociopath but unfortunately when applied to herbal identification as a ‘stand alone’ method, it is widely regarded in scientific pharmacognosy as unreliable. It’s not clear whether whole herb products were tested, or herbal extracts. It is well known in the industry that DNA testing is not reliable for extracts or preparations involving heat that leave little genetic material intact after processing.

Leading pharmacognocists have pointed out this problem and the obvious absence of controls involved with the procedure. It could have only been ignorance on the part of the New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman and his staff, that before publicly condemning these outlets and their products and issuing ‘cease and desist’ orders that industry testing standards be applied. These would be HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography), HTLC (high performance thin layer chromatography) or infrared spectroscopy.

Unfortunately this makes it look more like another smear at an industry that someone doesn’t like rather than a sincere effort at regulation.

The American Botanical Council, an independent organization that along with the herbal industry generally is sympathetic with the Attorney General’s concern regarding deception and adulteration of dietary herbal supplements, takes issue with the obvious oversight regarding more sophisticated methods of testing and evaluating herbs that are available.

The investigators tested 24 products, each claiming to be seven different herbs, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, and valerian. According to the press release, only 21% of the store-brand herbal supplements contained DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels, with Walmart’s products containing no DNA from a botanical source.

Checking the labels of Walmart’s herbal products, all except echinacea are described as standardized extracts. This only should be cause for any credible investigative agency to employ testing methods other than DNA genetic barcode testing. Wouldn’t it be ironic if instead of being the lowest potency, because they are all standardized extracts they turn out to have the highest potency compared to their rivals, GNC, Target and Walgreens?

Other problems with this sensationalistic smear against the herbal industry which has now wormed its way through myriad media outlets and the Internet is that the individual the Attorney contacted to conduct the DNA genetic barcode study was Prof. James A. Schulte II PhD, of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. Dr. Schulte’s background is in evolutionary biology and reptilian zoology and is not recognized as an expert in botany, pharmacognosy, or natural product chemistry.

Another fact for critical relevancy is that the highly respected University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Product research issued the following statement:

“The AG’s test results do not comport with other recently published research on herbal dietary supplements. Two recent tests from reputable laboratories on commercial ginkgo extracts have found ginkgo in all or almost all of the samples tested.”

Herbalists welcome fair and unbiased regulations for its industry. I know herbs are not regulated as drugs but as foods or food supplements, but even at that level, the fact that some unscrupulous entrepreneurs decided to exploit ma huang (Ephedra sinica) for instance, as a type of speed for weight loss and recreational use, got shut down. However the upshot of all of this is that one of the most valuable herbs for upper respiratory problems including asthma, emphysema and respiratory allergies is banned from the market place.

Herbalists generally and certainly herbalists who own herb manufacturing companies make a point of promoting quality in the market place. As to the company I have been associated with, Planetary Herbals, the levels of testing and accountability that even a single product must undergo before it is placed on the market is exhaustive to say the least.

The public who relies on herbs and natural supplements for their health needs as well as those of us who involved in the various aspects of producing and marketing them, all have a stake in reasonable, high quality industry standards. While it’s questionable that those seeking herbal supplements would look to purchase the at stores such as Walmart, Walgreens and Target, I’m just happy that they are available to the mass market and if people are looking for higher quality brand names, they should seek out specialty herb stores, herbalists and natural food stores. Nevertheless there are several quality manufacturers who produce decent quality herb products for private labeling.

Speaking with Nutra Ingredients USA, Dr. Pieter Cohen of Harvard, an outspoken critic of the industry, is quoted as saying “If you’d said 10% of the products couldn’t be identified, then I’d have believed that, but 80%? That’s unbelievable.” GNC, a generally high quality national distributor of natural supplements and one least likely to be selling bogus herb products, has taken to using Dr. Cohen’s even while agreeing to comply with the AG’s letter.

Ed Smith, herbalist and founder of Herb Pharm, one of the country’s largest herbal supplements manufacturers, recently stated, “I feel we should definitely condemn the NY AG’s very flawed ‘expose´.’ If he gets away with this then he and/or others will do similar sloppy and misleading work again. We should hold them to the same high level of professionalism that they demand of us.”

With the herb industry reaching an estimated 5.3 billion dollars in 2011 (according to Mark Blumenthal), unlike previous legal battles with regulatory agencies, the industry is showing signs of maturity welcoming appropriate regulatory actions for the good of all but criticizing what in this instance appears to be poor methodology on the part of New York attorney general.

(Added 2/11/15) In the most recent response to the New York attorney general’s cease and desist order GNC, a reputable supplements manufacturer and distributor has rebutted the AG’s accusations: 

GNC: Tests and re-tests show that ‘products contain the ingredients stated on the labels at the levels indicated on the labels’

By Stephen Daniells+, 10-Feb-2015

GNC Holdings has responded to the NY Attorney General’s actions with full and robust responses to every question raised in the cease and desist letter, including original test results and the results of retesting that was performed on the product lots cited in the letter.

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