When consumers plunk down cash for herbal supplements, they need to know they're getting what they pay for. But it's a crapshoot when buying store brands of popular supplements sold by four major retailers.
Four out of five supplements, such as Ginkgo biloba and Saint-John's-wort, didn't contain the herbs claimed on the labels at Walmart, GNC, Target and Walgreens, according to tests commissioned recently by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. What the tests did often find were contaminants and cheap fillers such as rice, beans, pine and wheat.
That revelation is evidence of a dangerous lack of federal regulation.
Such mislabeling and contamination are not just illegal. They endanger people with food allergies or those taking medications that could interact badly with unidentified substances sold as supplements.
Schneiderman's investigation and his demand that retailers immediately pull the products from store shelves are important services to consumers. But the job shouldn't fall to a state attorney general.
Congress has failed to empower the Food and Drug Administration to demand supplements are accurately labeled and safe. Unlike drugs, they are not subject to FDA review for safety and effectiveness before they can be sold. And since Congress relaxed the law in 1994, supplements are subject to less stringent regulation than food.
Companies are required to make sure that the supplements they manufacture or distribute are safe and accurately labeled, but no one checks.
That honor system has failed. What's needed is oversight.