On Monday, the New York State attorney general’s office accused 4 major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that the products be removed from their shelves.

The authorities said they conducted tests on top-selling store brands at 4 national retailers, GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart, and found that 4 out of 5 of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests found that pills labeled medicinal herbs often had little more than cheap fillers like asparagus, powdered rice, and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to people with allergies.

Among the findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. The ginkgo biloba found at Walmart contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat – despite the fact that the label said the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

Three out of 6 herbal products at Target – ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid – tested for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”

Walgreens said it would remove the products from its shelves nationwide, even though only New York State had demanded it. Walmart said it would reach out to the suppliers of its supplements “and take appropriate action.”

A spokesman for GNC said that the company would cooperate with the attorney general “in all appropriate ways,” but that it stood behind the quality and purity of its store brand supplements. The company said it tested all of its products “using validated and widely used testing methods.”

Target did not respond to requests for comment.

Marty Mack, an executive deputy attorney general in New York said, “The burden is now with the industry to prove what is in these supplements.”


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