GNC Agrees To DNA, Allergen Testing Of Herbal Supplements

Even though GNC products were ultimately found to abide by federal rules and industry standards, the company has agreed to DNA barcode testing on its ingredients, along with requiring its suppliers to test for common allergens.

Even though GNC products were ultimately found to abide by federal rules and industry standards, the company has agreed to DNA barcode testing on its ingredients, along with requiring its suppliers to test for common allergens.

Earlier this year, New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist letters to several major retailers, including Target, Walgreens, and GNC, after genetic testing of store-brand herbal supplements found that many of these products did not contain the herbal ingredients they purported to include, and that some contained potentially dangerous allergens. Today, GNC and Schneiderman announced an agreement that will apply stricter testing standards — more rigorous than those required by the federal government — to the company’s supplements.

According to the agreement [PDF], GNC cooperated with the AG’s office and the company has not been found to have deviated from FDA rules or industry standards in its production of these supplements.

The issue is that those guidelines allow for chemically similar natural and synthetic ingredients to be substituted for the herbs being advertised on the label. Schneiderman’s office contends that the methods used to test these ingredients “provide inadequate assurance of the authenticity of herbal supplements.” Those standards also allow for low-level contamination, even from allergens, and again the AG raises concerns saying that a lack of testing means consumers don’t know if “contamination falls below relevant safety thresholds.”

Thus, GNC has agreed to use DNA barcoding — wherein testers compare the DNA of an ingredient in the supplement with a reference segment of DNA — for the ingredients in its GNC Herbal Plus products. The company will start this testing within 18 months.

The company will also require of its suppliers that they implement randomized allergen testing on active herbal and botanical ingredients for Herbal Plus products. These tests will look for the eight most common allergens, as determined by the FDA.

In an effort to educate consumers, GNC will publicize the difference between whole herb ingredients — in which an herb is chopped or ground into a powder — and extracts, where the herb is treated with a solvent to pull out certain components.

These new testing procedures will apply to products sold at all GNC stores nationwide.

“When consumers take an herbal supplement, they should be able to do so with full knowledge of what is in that product and confidence that every precaution was taken to ensure its authenticity and purity,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “I urge all herbal supplements manufacturers and retailers to join GNC in working with my office to increase transparency and put the safety of their customers first.”

For its part, GNC is touting today’s agreement as proof that there was nothing wrong with its supplements.

“As our testing demonstrated, and this agreement affirms beyond any doubt, our products are not only safe and pure but are in full compliance with all regulatory requirements,” said Michael G. Archbold, CEO of GNC in a statement. “As an industry leader we have always gone above and beyond the minimum requirements in pursuing quality for our consumers, and we will continue to lead the efforts for higher standards. This is good for consumers, good for the industry, and good for GNC.”

Public health advocates are simultaneously applauding today’s agreement and pointing out that more should be done by the government to regulate this growing, multibillion-dollar industry.

“The agreement GNC reached with New York State represents important progress in ensuring that supplements contain what they claim to,” says David Schardt, Senior Nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But Congress should pass reform that would allow the FDA to police this marketplace and remove products that are dishonestly marketed or potentially dangerous.”

David S. Seres, M.D., Director of Medical Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center adds, “When federal law prohibits the kind of regulation that we demand on all other products used for health benefits, the Attorney General’s actions represent an important step in reining in the supplement industry and assuring that the consumer can trust what is in the bottle.”

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.