A coalition of state attorneys general -- led by New York's Eric T. Schneiderman -- plans a deeper investigation into the herbal supplements industry, a probe that has been underway in this state for more than a month.
Announcement of the newly formed coalition Tuesday is the latest in a crackdown on the dietary supplements industry initiated by Schneiderman's office in early February. Top officials from Connecticut, Indiana and Puerto Rico are joining Schneiderman to ensure that manufacturers can validate marketing claims.
"Clearly, the questions we raised about the herbal supplements sold in New York resonate outside of our borders," Schneiderman said in a statement Tuesday.
Early last month Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters to retailers -- GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens -- for allegedly selling store-brand herbal supplements that didn't contain ingredients stated on product labels. DNA tests commissioned by Schneiderman's office found numerous popular products -- echinacea, ginseng, Ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto -- contained fillers and totally unrelated substances.
Products were tainted with residues of rice, beans, pine, primrose, wheat, houseplants and wild carrot. In many instances, the contaminant was the only plant material found in samples.
Steve Mister, president and chief executive of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an influential trade organization, said Schneiderman's expanding probe harms consumers and is a waste of taxpayers' money. He said the commissioned study was based on faulty science, the details of which were never made public.
However, the New York study's discovery of few, if any, active ingredients corroborates findings by Stony Brook University research, which similarly uncovered mislabeling issues two years ago on containers of black cohosh, a widely used herbal product.
"The accuracy in the information that a label offers to consumers is sacred," said Nery Adames Soto, secretary of consumer affairs in Puerto Rico.
Schneiderman's February investigation, however, went beyond retailers. Two weeks ago, he sent letters to four major supplement manufacturers, including Nature's Bounty, which has headquarters in Ronkonkoma. Those letters demanded detailed ingredient and quality-control information on all herbal supplements sold in New York.
Schneiderman said consumers need assurances that ingredients listed on product labels are actually in containers.
"The findings uncovered by Attorney General Schneiderman raise serious public health and consumer protection concerns," said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen.
The $30 billion dietary supplements industry sells its wares to roughly half the U.S. population -- 150 million people. A 2013 Canadian government study estimated 65,000 dietary supplement products are on the U.S. market.
Daniel Fabricant, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's supplements division and now director and chief executive of the Natural Products Association, another industry organization, said Schneiderman is wasting tax money.
"It's unfortunate that the attorney general is doing this. I really don't see how it's a benefit for New York, or the taxpayers now of Indiana, Connecticut and Puerto Rico."