Feb. 3, 2015 -- Four national retailers -- GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart -- are accused of selling fake and potentially harmful herbal supplements and must remove them from their shelves, the New York State attorney general's office has announced.
An investigation by state authorities found that a number of top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at the four major retailers did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels, The New York Times reported.
Instead, they contained cheap fillers like powdered vegetables and houseplants, or ingredients that could pose a threat to people with allergies, officials said.
Here are some of the specific finding from the investigation, according to The Times report: Walmart's ginkgo biloba -- marketed as a memory booster -- contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, even though it claimed to be wheat- and gluten free. Walgreen's popular store brand of ginseng pills contains only powdered garlic and rice. Three of six herbal products at Target -- St. John's wort, ginkgo biloba, and the purported sleep aid valerian root -- had no herbs and were made of powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. At GNC, herbal pills contained unlisted fillers such as powdered legumes, a class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, which can trigger allergic reactions.
On Monday, the state attorney general sent cease-and-desist letters to the four retailers and told them to outline the procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their herbal supplements, The Times reported.
"Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal," State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. "They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families -- especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients."
In response to the investigation, Walgreens said it would remove the products from its stores nationwide, Walmart said it would "take appropriate action," and GNC said it would cooperate "in all appropriate ways," but added that it stood behind the quality and purity of its store brand. Target did not respond to requests for comment, The Times reported.
Many health experts who have long warned about the quality and safety of dietary supplements welcomed the investigation. It's the first time that large retail and drugstore chains in the United States have been threatened with legal action for selling misleading herbal products, The Times reported.
"If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry," Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, said.