What’s in Your Herbal Pills? Firm Promises DNA Testing for Proof
September 30, 2016
As published by the NY Times on September 28, 2016.
NBTY, one of the nation’s largest makers of popular supplements like ginkgo biloba and ginseng, has agreed to conduct advanced genetic testing to help ensure that its herbal products actually contain the ingredients promised on the label.
The agreement, which affects several popular brands including Solgar, Nature’s Bounty and Sundown Naturals, was announced Wednesday by the New York State attorney general’s office. It follows an agency investigation last year that found that four out of five of the products tested from major retailers did not contain any of the herbs promised on their labels. Instead the agency said the bottles often contained pills made of cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases, substances like nuts and soy that could be dangerous to people with food allergies.
The agreement with NBTY is the third such agreement with a supplement maker negotiated by the office of the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and adds pressure on the herbal supplement industry to adopt stricter quality control measures. Last year, two major supplement makers, GNC and Nature’s Way, said that that they would implement strict new quality control procedures like the use of advanced DNA testing to authenticate the plants used in their herbal product lines.
The attorney general’s investigation was prompted by an article in The New York Times in 2013 that raised questions about widespread labeling fraud in the herbal supplement industry. The article referred to research at the University of Guelph in Canada that found that as many as a third of herbal supplements tested did not contain the plants listed on their labels.
NBTY, which is based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., said on Wednesday it would begin to phase in the use of advanced DNA testing on the ingredients from its suppliers, and will conduct random tests of its products to screen for any allergens. NBTY is one of the dominant companies in the $7 billion herbal supplement industry, although exact market share numbers aren’t available.
NBTY, which is owned by the private equity giant Carlyle Group, does not disclose what portion of its $3 billion in annual revenue comes from herbal products. The company lists more than 22,000 products, including herbal products, vitamins, meal replacements, protein bars and fish oil and other nutrition supplements.
In a statement, NBTY’s general counsel, Stratis Philippis, said its herbal supplements had passed standard industry tests required under federal law, but that it was agreeing to do more advanced DNA testing for the benefit of consumers. The statement said the firm will promote the development of “the most accurate, reliable standards and testing methods for the authenticity of herbal dietary supplements.”
The attorney general’s investigation last year prompted increased scrutiny of the multibillion-dollar herbal supplement industry and led to dozens of class action lawsuits. Consumer advocates said it highlighted the federal government’s lax regulation of herbal supplements. The industry has countered that the DNA testing method is not always reliable because many supplements come from herbal extracts, and that DNA from the plants advertised on their labels would not always be present because DNA is damaged during manufacturing and extraction.
In a written agreement, the attorney general’s office acknowledged that NBTY had provided documentation showing that the company had used traditional chemical testing procedures on its herbal supplements as required by the Food and Drug Administration. But critics have said that the F.D.A.’s regulations and oversight of the industry is too weak. And the attorney general’s office said that in many instances, the traditional tests required by the agency “fail to adequately detect the presence of known organic contaminants, including allergens, or unidentified fillers.”
The attorney general said that the advanced DNA testing procedure NBTY had agreed to implement — known as DNA bar coding, which identifies plants and other organisms by their genetic fingerprints — was a more powerful method for detecting potential contaminants in the herbal supply chain.
Mr. Schneiderman said that the agreement and wider use of DNA testing in the herbal industry would provide consumers assurances that when they buy an herbal supplement, “the plant on the label is the plant in the bottle.”
“Consumers can only have that confidence if the companies that sell herbal supplements employ the best and most reliable testing measures for combating fraud and ruling out dangerous allergens,” he added. “I am pleased that NBTY has joined GNC and Nature’s Way and agreed to increase transparency, improve quality control, and do more to protect consumers, and I urge the rest of the herbal supplements industry to do the same.”
In recent years, herbal supplements have been increasingly scrutinized. A recent study by the New York Botanical Garden and research by at least two independent teams of scientists found that many popular herbal products contained cheap fillers like powdered rice and weeds, or evidence of soybeans, tree nuts and other potential allergens not listed on the labels. Experts say there are many stops along the herbal supply chain where ingredients can be substituted or tampered with, particularly for products coming from overseas.
Last year, Mr. Schneiderman’s office announced that it had tested dozens of herbal supplements sold at Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC locations across New York State.
NBTY, which manufactured herbal supplements for Walmart and Walgreens, had been using traditional chemical analyses and quality control measures on its products. But Mr. Schneiderman said it wasn’t enough.
As part of its agreement with the attorney general, the company said it would phase in the use of DNA bar coding on its herbal ingredients within the next 24 months. The company said it would also begin randomly testing the supplements for allergens like milk, wheat and peanuts, and that it would partner with Cornell University and other scientific institutions.
The company said that it considered DNA bar coding “an emerging science” but that it would promote its development and implementation “as an additional technology to benefit consumers.”