Investigation shows herbal supplements aren't all what they claim

JWE Supplements 11p
JWE Supplements 11p

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – They have been yanked off the shelves in New York, but Local 10 News has learned some herbal supplements are readily available in South Florida.

A recent investigation in the Big Apple showed numerous store brand herbal supplements aren't what they claim to be.

The New York Attorney General's Office calls it fraud and potentially dangerous.

Local 10 went to a Walmart in Miami Gardens, a GNC in Hollywood, a Target on Bird Road and a Walgreens in Plantation.

Investigative reporter Jeff Weinsier was able to spot, or in some cases buy, the same supplements that have been the focus of the investigation in New York.

Caught in the middle are consumers like Ana Maria Reyes, who buys her supplements at a Miami Target.

"You think when you are purchasing something from a reputable place you can trust what's in it," Reyes said.

New York conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers -- GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart -- and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. 

The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

Nearly 80 percent of the test results found the store brand supplements tested did not contain what is listed on the label.

Cease and desist letters have been sent to the four retailers.

[READ: Cease and desist notification]

But what about in Florida?

Walgreens and Target have pulled some supplements off South Florida shelves while the New York investigation is ongoing. GNC and Walmart have not.

"Florida is part of group of states forming to review this matter," said Whitney Ray, the press secretary for the Florida Office of the Attorney General. "In addition, we are in the process of setting up meetings with the four companies in Florida directed specifically to understanding the status of the situation in Florida."

Americans spend $60 billion every year on supplements like ginseng, echinacea and St. Johns wort. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate what is in supplements the way they regulate drugs.

Dr. Robert Fishman, who owns Post Haste Pharmacy in Hollywood, said there is really no way for the consumer to know what's in the capsules or pills.

"You have to trust who you're dealing with," he said.

Fishman's shelves are lined with hundreds of herbal supplements. Many are tested by a third party -- independent companies who test, verify and back the ingredients.

That's what you should look for when spending you hard earned cash, he said.

Walgreens said the ginko biloba, saw palmetto and echinacea spotted in Hollywood and Plantation shouldn't have been on the shelves.

"As a precautionary measure, the product was pulled from all our store shelves nationwide," said Emily Hartwig, with Walgreens corporate media relations. "As an added safety measure, our computers also stop the sale of such items at checkout, just in case an item was overlooked by store employees."

"We are complying with the attorney general's request in New York, but will continue to sell these products in our other stores throughout the country," said Brian Nick, the director of Walmart's national media relations. "We hold our suppliers to high standards and are committed to providing our customers the quality products they deserve."

"We are partnering with our vendor to investigate the matters raised by the report and intend to cooperate fully with the attorney general," said Evan Lapiska, Target's public relations senior specialist. "While that investigation proceeds, Target will comply with the New York attorney general's request to pull these products, and have done so in all of our stores nationwide."

Follow Jeff Weinsier on Twitter @jweinsier

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