The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict standards for prescription drugs before they can be sold to the public. They must undergo rigorous testing to validate their ingredients and effectiveness before being allowed to go to market.
Not everyone wants to take prescription drugs though. Many people prefer to first try natural alternatives, and that often includes supplements. Other people use supplements simply to make sure they are getting enough of the proper nutrients if they think their diet might be lacking. Either way, there’s plenty of money to be made in the supplements industry, and that opportunity, coupled with a lack of regulations, creates a strong temptation for some manufacturers to cheat.
When there’s big money to be made, there are usually people in place to make sure nothing interferes. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, for example, was a sponsor and chief architect of the 1994 law exempting supplements from the FDA’s strict approval process used for prescription drugs. Hatch has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the supplement industry and repeatedly intervened in Washington against proposed legislation that would put in place more stringent rules regarding supplements.
Now, for the first time, a law enforcement agency is threatening the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action as a result of some of the herbal supplements they sell. The New York State attorney general’s office has accused four major retailers (GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart) of selling potentially dangerous or falsely labeled herbal supplements.
The attorney general’s office says it conducted tests of the supplements and found some of them did not contain any of the herbs they claimed to contain. Instead, they allegedly contained cheap fillers, some of which could be dangerous to people with allergies.
For example, the attorney general found that a popular brand of ginseng pills sold at Walgreens that was supposedly sold to increase “physical endurance and vitality” allegedly contained only powdered garlic and rice. Meanwhile, Walmart’s gingko biloba, a Chinese plant supposed to improve memory, contained mostly powdered radish, houseplants, and wheat – despite the label claiming it was wheat-free and gluten-free. Other herbal products sold at Target and GNC were found to contain powdered rice, beans, peas, and wild carrots.
As part of its investigation, the attorney general’s office bought 78 bottles of the leading brands of herbal supplements from twelve different retail locations across the state of New York. They then analyzed the products using DNA barcoding, a type of genetic fingerprinting that allows scientists to identify plants and animals by looking for short sequences of DNA unique to each organism.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an expert on supplement safety, said it was possible the tests had failed to detect some plants, even if they were present, because the manufacturing process could have destroyed their DNA. But that does not explain how the tests were able to identify ingredients that were not included on the labels.
The New York State attorney general’s office has sent cease and desist letters to the retailers. This has prompted Walgreens to agree to stop selling the products in its stores nationwide, even though the letters only apply to the state of New York. Walmart has also agreed to reach out to the suppliers of its supplements in response to the recent findings. GNC has said it will cooperate with the attorney general’s office, but it continues to insist their products are pure and of high quality.
Our Chicago class action attorneys are investigating this matter and would like to speak with alleged victims who purchased supplement from Walgreens, GNC and Walmart and still have proof of purchase.
Our Aurora, Illinois consumer rights private law firm handles individual and class action predatory lending, unfair debt collection, lemon law and other consumer fraud cases that government agencies and public interest law firms such as the Illinois Attorney General may not pursue. Class action lawsuits our law firm has been involved in or spear-headed have led to substantial awards totalling over a million dollars to organizations including the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the National Consumer Law Center, and local law school consumer programs. The Chicago consumer lawyers at DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle are proud of our achievements in assisting national and local consumer rights organizations obtain the funds needed to ensure that consumers are protected and informed of their rights. By standing up to consumer fraud and consumer rip-offs, and in the right case filing consumer protection lawsuits and class-actions you too can help ensure that other consumers’ rights are protected from consumer rip-offs and unscrupulous or dishonest practices.
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