GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals’

Feb 9, 2015

Image credit: Jennifer S. Altman/Bloomberg

By Sarah Kaplan

A warning to herbal supplement users: Those store-brand ginkgo biloba tablets you bought may contain mustard, wheat, radish and other substances decidedly non-herbal in nature, but they’re not likely to contain any actual ginkgo biloba.

That’s according to an investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office into store-brand supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. All four have received cease-and-desist letters demanding that they stop selling a number of their dietary supplements, few of which were found to contain the herbs shown on their labels and many of which included potential allergens not identified in the ingredients list.

“Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers,” said the letters, first reported today by the New York Times.

The tests were conducted using a process called DNA barcoding, which identifies individual ingredients through a kind of “genetic fingerprinting.” The investigators tested 24 products claiming to be seven different types of herb — echinacea, garlic, gingko biloba, ginseng, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort and valerian root. All but five of the products contained DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be.

Additionally, five of the 24 contained wheat and two contained beans without identifying them on the labels — both substances are known to cause allergic reactions in some people.


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15 comments on “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals’

  • What makes no sense is the herbs that were replaced with fillers are not that expensive. I suspect what happened is the chains just bought from the cheapest source. The sources pared and pared to get the contracts — then went over the line. Companies like Walmart have sources by the balls. If they don’t get the contract, they may get no business at all, so they have to pare and pare. With those volumes, chains could easily afford random quality testing. But they decided to close their eyes.



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  • 4
    Miserablegit says:

    The quack remedy market will always be an easy mark for the scammers, with no agreed ingredients any kind of shit can make it in and probably does.



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  • I think this is also a commentary on homo sapiens. That scams like this are so successful around the world suggests there may be a gullibility trait in us all that leaves us open to belief in irrational sales pitch. Dietary supplement scams? God and the after life?



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  • Another observation. In my local Australian pharmacies, I have noticed that the scientific medicines occupy around 3 metres of shelf space. The herbal remedies, vitamin supplements and just plain quackery occupy around 10 metres of shelf space. Clearly the pharmacist is making a good profit from these non medical shelves. What I wonder is how the pharmacist squares the circle. In Australia, a pharmacist must have a 4 year degree from a university that follows the scientific method, and be licensed by the government to dispense efficacious medicines. So how does this scientifically qualified degree carrying pharmacist, hold the bottle of green coffee bean extract in front of a customary, extol its virtues and take the clients money.

    We as a species seem to be able to disconnect the two activities as long as you are making a profit. The duty of care goes out the window. Any altruistic feelings as the end result of the transaction are suspended. In short, the pharmacist suspends his conscience. during the transaction, and reinstates it as he dispenses a cholesterol tablet. We’re a funny species.



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  • A kilogram of pure ginkgo biloba is $50 to $60. I don’t think radishes
    are that expensive!

    Exactly. Radishes are not expensive, yet they sell it expensively. Damn capitalists. And I think that high price have psychological effect on buyer … the higher the price you are removing any doubt in correctness of the product and removes your own responsibility. With high prices capitalists are buying our doubt and common sense.



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  • Yes. We sell ourselves cheap.

    Actually, I always read declarations on products. Always. And I must say I do not buy any diet supplement, or deity supplement, hahahaaa…



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  • So how does this scientifically qualified degree carrying pharmacist,
    hold the bottle of green coffee bean extract in front of a customary,
    extol its virtues and take the clients money. We as a species seem to
    be able to disconnect the two activities as long as you are making a
    profit.

    Horrible, isn’t it? Generally, as species we strive to improve our every day life, and than we limit that improvements by money. Dirty capitalists!

    Oh, it seems to me that I am feeling especially naughty towards capitalists today, hahahaa.



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  • 10
    Outrider says:

    Doesn’t this just open a massive opportunity for these outlets to relabel the products as homeopathic herbal remedies? Stick a dragon on the label and they have the New Age holy trinity of ‘Oriental Homeopathic Herbal’ quackery…



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  • Do quack remedies get repeat sales? Or the do the quack people need to offer a never-ending stream of “new” products? If so, that would explain the much larger self space.



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  • I suspect the retailers will now be using computer tracking, back down their supply chains, to find the sources of the fake products.
    There are likely to be some quality requirements in the supply contracts, with financial implications/penalties, for supplying substandard produce.



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  • […] never-ending stream of “new” products

    That might be it, as it seems to be a common marketing ploy.

    Recently I bought a bird suet, and noticed a new one labeled wilder birds! – backwards evolution > wilder, wild, birds – in addition to ump-teen flavor selections.

    I went ahead and bought it, maybe it will attract African shoebills, mid-east hunting falcons, or endangered trumpeter swans, lol.



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  • David R Allen Feb 10, 2015 at 2:00 am

    Clearly the pharmacist is making a good profit from these non medical shelves. What I wonder is how the pharmacist squares the circle. In Australia, a pharmacist must have a 4 year degree from a university that follows the scientific method, and be licensed by the government to dispense efficacious medicines.

    I’m not sure about elsewhere, but in the UK the pharmacy chains, have one or two pharmacists in a back-room or on a specialist counter, to dispense prescription medicines, and most counters and check-outs manned by shop assistants, cosmetics sales people etc.!



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