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DNA Tests on Herbal Supplements Prompt Safety Warnings to Consumers

NJ poison-control official cites allergic-reaction concerns; industry representatives dismiss testing method as unreliable

st john's wort
Used to treat anxiety and depression, St. John's wort is a common and popular herbal supplement.

Consumers should have real worries that they might not be getting what they think when they buy herbal supplements, according to a manager with New Jersey’s poison control center.

Concerns about such supplements -- including those supposedly containing St. John’s wort, echinacea and ginseng -- were raised this week after N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanded that four major retailers stop selling the products.

Tests ordered by his office found that many of the supplements did not contain DNA from their listed active ingredients, while they did include DNA from unlisted ingredients – such as wheat products -- that can trigger allergic reactions.

Only 21 percent of tested products had the DNA from the listed herbal ingredients.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

Walgreens and Target announced that they would stop selling the products nationally. Walmart officials said they’d stop selling them in New York and would be reaching out to suppliers for more information. GNC representatives said they stood behind their products.

Representatives of herbal supplement makers, both nationally and in New Jersey, where several have headquarters – questioned the use of DNA tests, which aren’t standard in the industry.

But Bruce Ruck of the New Jersey Poison Information & Education System – which is also known as the New Jersey poison control center and is a division of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark -- said he is concerned that supplements don’t get the same level of safety oversight as drugs.

“One of the concerns is they (consumers) are not getting what they think they are getting,” Ruck said, adding that the DNA tests raised questions about “what is in there, if it’s not listed on the label. It could be things that cause side- effects or allergens, so that is also a concern to the consumer.”

Indeed, the tests done in New York found DNA from plants that can cause problems but weren’t listed in the ingredients. Some products at GNC included DNA from powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, which can trigger serious allergic reactions in some people. In addition, Walmart sold a “ginkgo biloba” supplement that contained wheat DNA, despite a label claiming it was “wheat free,” but with no ginkgo biloba DNA.

“I think people need to understand what they are taking and the lack of control on these products – I think that’s the big issue,” said Ruck, who assists with the state poison control hotline and trains healthcare professionals on poisons. “There is less control, there is less safety information” and less enforcement than there is with drugs.

But representatives of the herbal-supplement industry rejected Schneiderman’s use of DNA testing -- which is known as barcoding -- saying that the processing of herbal extracts can destroy the DNA and leave it untraceable. They said that longstanding tests used by the industry accurately track the contents of the supplements.

“Using DNA barcoding as the only method for identifying ingredients in popular herbal dietary supplements and ignoring all other well-established and valid methods of herbal analysis is a suspect analytical process at best, and likely to provide results that are inaccurate,” said Maged Sharaf, chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association, in a statement.

Steve Mister, president of supplement trade group the Council for Dietary Nutrition, said Schneiderman’s actions were “uninformed, reckless and inexcusable.”

Beth Lambert, CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist, said the industry is subjected to more tests and regulations than the food industry, but that it would be inappropriate to test herbal supplements the way drugs are tested because they don’t have the same targeted therapeutic purposes as drugs. She added that the herbal-supplement products have a long history of being used safely.

Her company, based in Washington in Warren County, makes liquid herbal extracts that weren’t sold in any of the New York stores. It primarily sells its products through practitioners, which include doctors, nurses, chiropractors and acupuncturists, as well as through health-food stores in and near New Jersey, Lambert said.

Lambert said the national retailers’ suppliers likely included companies that have been thoroughly inspected by the FDA.

“I don’t know why they chose that technology,” she said of the use of DNA testing. “Why would you choose something that’s not the accepted norm?”

She added that the number of serious adverse reactions to the use of herbal supplements is far smaller than for drugs. She said her company’s customers haven’t had one in the 34 years since it was founded.

She said her company uses independent, third-party laboratories to test its products, including Rutgers University and commercial testing labs. They use chromatography, a chemical process that separates the substances in mixtures.

Schneiderman’s office responded to industry concerns about DNA testing by saying that the burden of proof was on the industry to prove that what’s on the labels is in the products.

“The industry has repeatedly attacked those who have conducted testing of these products in an attempt to verify their contents,” according to a statement from the office. It noted that the University of Guelph in Canada also founded herbal supplements lacked listed ingredients.

“The University of Guelph has said that they are confident in their testing procedures and we are confident in our testing procedures,” the statement said.

Schneiderman ordered the retailers to provide a variety of information by Monday, including: the name and location of the products’ manufacturers; a listing of the DNA or other testing of the products’ content and quality; a listing of the ingredients, including the measurements; the standards used to authenticate the contents; and any serious “adverse event” reports.

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