An investigation by the New York Attorney General found nearly 60 percent of Target's "Up and Up" brand herbal supplements didn't contain what the label said was being sold.
"Of 90 DNA tests run on 18 bottles of the herbal products purchased, DNA matched label identification 41% of the time," a report released yesterday reads. "Contaminants identified included allium, French bean, asparagus, pea, wild carrot and saw palmetto."
See also: Revolting Pharmacists: Target Edition
Armed with knowledge of the egregious scam, the New York AG issued a cease and desist letter to Target and three other retailers -- GNC, Walgreens and Walmart -- caught doing the same thing.
When we reached out yesterday to ask Target about the investigation, a spokesman responded with a statement saying the store is pulling all of its Up and Up supplements until it figures out what the hell happened:
Target is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests. We take these claims seriously and will continue to focus on ensuring that our products meet or exceed all relevant standards.According to the New York Times, Walgreens is doing the same for its line of off-brand "Finest Nutrition" supplements, while Walmart and GNC are waiting to hear from its suppliers.
We are partnering with our vendor to investigate the matters raised by the report and intend to cooperate fully with the Attorney General. While that investigation proceeds, Target will comply with the New York Attorney General's request to pull these products, and will do so in all of our stores.
"Most counterfeiters will put at least a small amount [of the purported active ingredient] in, and then these DNA tests would pick it up. Putting nothing in is really crass," said Tom Shier, a professor with the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy.
Significant doubts about the legitimacy of these herbal supplements have been around since at least 2013, when a major Canadian study found "most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers."
The New York Times picked up on that study, which piqued the interest of the New York Attorney General, and now the whole junk industry has been thoroughly exposed. The herbal supplements tested were Gingko Biloba, St. John's Wort, Valerian Root, Garlic, Echinacea, and Saw Palmetto.
The Attorney General found: "Three supplements showed nearly consistent presence of the labeled contents: Echinacea (with one sample identifying rice), Garlic, and Saw Palmetto. The remaining three supplements did not reveal DNA from the labeled herb."
Herbal supplements are not regulated like other drugs because the industry bought off Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has proudly blocked any attempt at bringing accountability to the snake oil industry.
"Essentially these manufacturers own a politician, and when an industry owns a politician it tends to be able to do whatever it wants to do," said the U of M's Shier.
Shier added a much larger problem in the pharmaceutical business is the threat of counterfeit cancer drugs, like the fake Avastin scandal in 2012.
"At least people aren't getting killed by [the fake herbal supplements]," he said. "This is more of an economic concern."
Send news tips to Ben Johnson.