Chains Pull Dietary Aids Off Shelves After Inquiry

The New York State attorney general’s office issued subpoenas to four major retailers on Wednesday demanding that they provide evidence for a variety of health claims printed on the labels of the dietary supplements sold in their New York stores. The subpoenas were sent as part of an investigation into store-brand herbal supplements carried at Walgreens, Walmart, GNC and Target.

The attorney general’s office announced last week that it had conducted tests on 78 bottles of top-selling medicinal herbs at the four retailers and discovered that four out of five did not contain the ingredients advertised on their labels.

The office said that the products appeared in many cases to contain powdered rice, wheat and ground-up houseplants.

After a threat of legal action from the attorney general, the four retailers agreed to remove the products from New York shelves.

A spokeswoman for New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, declined to comment on the subpoenas. But a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation, who was not authorized to discuss the case, said the subpoenas demanded that the four retailers provide evidence of how they would prove the authenticity of their product claims.

Ginkgo biloba supplements sold at Target, for example, carried a claim that the products supported “concentration, memory and peripheral circulation, enhancing blood flow to the arms, legs and brain.” At GNC, a line of saw palmetto supplements promised to “support healthy prostate function.” And Walmart’s Spring Valley brand of echinacea supplements were promoted for “healthy immune function.”

Under a 1994 federal law, makers of supplements are allowed to make general health claims on their products, but they cannot imply that the products are able to prevent or treat disease. Companies are also required to identify all of the ingredients in a product on its label.

A spokesman for Target said it had been in contact with the attorney general and would “continue to cooperate.”

GNC said it had provided test results demonstrating that its products were “pure, safe and fully compliant.” A company spokeswoman added, “The attorney general has refused to provide us access to his test results, and therefore we cannot comment on the allegations in this subpoena.”

Walgreens, which removed the products nationwide, said in a statement, “We take these issues very seriously,” adding, “We intend to continue cooperating.”

Walmart said, “Since the attorney general’s office reached out on this issue, we have provided hundreds of pages in documents to answer the questions about the products.”

Eamonn Vitt