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Should You Believe the Labels on Herbal Supplements? NY Atty General Says ‘No’

Last week, 14 state attorney generals asked the U.S. Congress to investigate the herbal supplements industry after a probe by New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman turned up ingredients that were not listed on labels and raised safety concerns.

In February, Schneiderman’s office had sent cease-and-desist letters to four major retailers—GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens— which each sell their own brands of herbal supplements. The letters ordered them to pull the products from the shelves, after an investigation by his office found that at least 79 percent of the products tested from those stores contained none of the plants listed on the products’ labels.

Last week, his office reached an agreement with GNC, for the manufacturer to use stricter testing standards on its products.

Josh Bloom, Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science at the American Council on Science and Health, says in the news release, “although this agreement is certainly an improvement from the standards that have been in place, and Attorney General Schneiderman should be applauded for his work in this area, this is only the first step. Congress has stripped the FDA of the ability to approve or reject these products, which are essentially unregulated drugs.”

In a radio interview on The Brian Lehrer Show, Schneiderman said that over-the-counter and prescriptions drugs are far more regulated than herbal supplements, and the lack of regulation of supplements has led to a proliferation of bad products.

New York’s chief law officer is not the only one looking into the misleading claims that some of these manufacturers make.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also conducted its own probe finding weight-loss herbal supplements containing sibutramine—a key ingredient in a prescription drug that was removed from U.S. markets five years ago because it is known to contribute to heart problems and strokes.

It also found some sexual performance and weight loss herbal supplements with a key ingredient from the prescription drug Viagra, which the agency says shouldn’t be dispensed without medical supervision.

Last week’s joint letter was addressed to Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, chair of the subcommittee of consumer protection and product safety, and Pennsylvania Representative Joe Pitts, chair of the subcommittee on health. It cites the New York probe and other research showing high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic in certain supplements.

However, associations representing supplement manufacturers argue that more regulation isn’t needed.

Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplements industry group, responded to the New York attorney general’s investigation by saying it was discredited. “It is unfortunate that the New York State Attorney General has spearheaded a request for Congress to spend taxpayers’ money to ‘launch a comprehensive congressional inquiry into the herbal supplements industry’ when the industry is already amply regulated on a federal level by FDA and FTC,” reported Capital New York.

S.C. Rhyne is a blogger and novelist in New York City. Follow the author on Twitter @ReporterandGirl, and visit her website at

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