Herbal supplements under scrutiny: call for tougher regulations

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Americans spend billions of dollars every year on little pills meant to make them feel or look better, but how do you know if what you’re buying is really what you’re getting?

The herbal supplement industry is under fire after tests by New York’s Attorney General found businesses were selling supplements that were not what they claimed to be.

Attorney Gen. Eric Schneiderman (D-NY) ordered those products be taken off the shelves, but some of those products are still available in Pennsylvania.

Schneiderman's study looked at a variety of popular store-brand herbal supplements at four major retailers: GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreen's.

Through a process called DNA barcoding, Schneiderman said he found "only 21 percent of the products we tested in fact had DNA evidence that they contained the product listed on the label."

The tests fueled critics of the industry who say it exposed why more regulations are needed.

"This has nothing to do with the efficacy of the product. This has to do with consumer fraud," said Schneiderman.

The head of the Natural Products Association, which lobbies on behalf of the industry, criticized Schneiderman's study.

Daniel Fabricant, the group's CEO and executive director, said the attorney general "has continued to escalate his attack on the supplement industry without any legitimate data to back up his arguments."

He added, "The FDA is properly equipped to identify and go after firms that pose a threat to public health."

To get some clarity on the issue, FOX43 talked with Dr. John Neely, who's an integrative medicine specialist at Penn State Hershey Medicine Center.

"Do I think there are people out there manufacturing them that shouldn't? Yeah, I'll bet that's the case," said Dr. Neely.

He said there are some companies who invite the FDA to look at their manufacturing practices, but he adds, "The supplement business is a problem."

Dr. Neely notes supplements are not regulated in the same way medicines are.

"People that were making the supplements were fearful that if they had to go through the multimillion-dollar development process that drugs have to, that they'd be driven out of business," he said.

While the attorney general in New York can compel companies to improve the reliability of products sold in his state, that doesn't mean that's happening in other states, including Pennsylvania.

14 attorneys general, including Pa. Attorney Gen. Kathleen Kane (D), sent a letter to members of Congress asking for a "comprehensive inquiry" into the supplement industry.

They hope Congress will work with the FDA to find better ways to ensure companies are really selling what they say they are.

"The old Latin saying, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, I think really holds for herbals. You have to be careful where you get them," said Dr. Neely.

GNC, which is based in Pennsylvania, recently struck a deal with Attorney Gen. Schneiderman and will improve its testing standards to go beyond what the federal law requires. Schneiderman is calling on other companies whose products he tested to do the same.