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For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tried to remind consumers that it does not have any oversight rights over dietary supplements. Supplements such as ginkgo biloba, valerian, and ginseng also are legally required to carry a warning that explains that they have not been proven to treat any disease. However, most consumers likely assume that the herbal or nutritional supplements they purchase at least contain what the labels promise. That is, if you buy a bottle of ginseng, you assume you are getting ginseng pills. It appears you’re wrong.

Article 8In a recent investigation, representatives of the New York attorney general’s office purchased 78 bottles of supplements from 12 stores run by four major retailers: GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, and Target. It subjected the contents to DNA testing, which revealed exactly what was contained in each pill. In approximately 80 percent of the cases, the bottles did not contain any traces of the supplements they claimed to contain.

Instead, they featured inexpensive filler products, such as dried rice, houseplants, wheat, asparagus, and powdered legumes. Thus, consumers had been paying to consume various types of grains that offer none of the benefits claimed by the various supplement makers.

Furthermore, many of the ingredients in the products are serious allergens for people. The powdered legumes likely would spark a negative reaction in people with nut allergies, and the presence of wheat would be serious problem for people who seek to eliminate gluten from their diets. Not only did the bottles not list these contents, but in a few cases, they even promised to be gluten free.

The misrepresentations led the New York attorney general’s office to insist that the retailers remove the items from store shelves in that state. Walgreens promised to remove the misrepresented products from all stores throughout the country. GNC instead insisted on the quality and purity of the products it sold, claiming that it applied extensive testing to its supplements.

Manufacturers in the supplement industry have argued that government oversight of the industry is unnecessary, because any problems are the result of a few bad apples. But the vast proportion of products in New York stores that did not contain any of the advertised supplements—and instead contained potentially dangerous ingredients—suggest the entire orchard might be in trouble.

Discussion Question:

 Should retailers selling fraudulent supplements be held accountable for their actions even if they are not aware the merchandise was fraudulent?


Source: Anahad O’Connor, The New York Times, February 3, 2015