Consumers who've been popping herbal supplements may want to take note after the New York State attorney general announced yesterday that four retail giants are selling herbal items that may be mislabeled, crammed with fillers, and potentially dangerous, the Guardian reports. Eric Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters to Walmart, GNC, Target, and Walgreen, ordering they remove the suspect store-brand supplements—including echinacea, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, St. John's wort, and saw palmetto—from NY shelves after DNA testing found plants listed on labels were either in short supply, swapped out for cheap (and possibly allergy-inducing) substitutes such as powdered rice or wheat, or not present at all. "Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal," Schneiderman said, per the New York Times. "They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families—especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients."
Almost 80% of supplements tested at the retailers didn't contain any of the herbs they claimed; Walmart fared the worst, with only 4% of its tested products adhering to label claims, the Guardian notes. The findings have reinvigorated the debate about whether herbal supplements—which don't have to be FDA-approved like drugs before going to market—should be subject to stricter governmental oversight. Advocates for such change, however, have to fight the supplement industry and powerful advocates such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who sponsored the 1994 FDA law exempting herb supplements, the Times notes. A Harvard professor and supplement safety expert tells the Times that "if this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry."