Nutritional supplement retailer GNC Holdings Inc. is cleared to sell some of its most popular products, including echinacea, ginseng and St. John’s Wort, under an agreement announced Monday with New York’s attorney general.
State investigators found “no evidence” that GNC had deviated from U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards or from standard industry practice in producing the supplements, according to a letter New York Atty. Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman sent to GNC’s chairman, Michael Archbold.
The Pittsburgh-based company said its own testing had shown that its store-brand herbal supplements were “safe, pure” and “properly labeled.”
The agreement does not assess a fine and does not allege any mislabeling. GNC said it did agree to expand testing, including the use of DNA bar coding, to give customers “even greater confidence.”
The settlement represents a significant pullback from the state attorney general's earlier assertions. In February, Schneiderman sent letters to GNC as well as Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Walgreen Co., demanding that they stop selling their store-brand herbal supplements.
The attorney general's office alleged then that 79% of products tested had no DNA of the plants listed on the labels or were contaminated by wheat, pine, rice, beans and other materials.
The products tested were GNC's Herbal Plus brand, Target's Up & Up, Walgreen's Finest Nutrition and Wal-Mart's Spring Valley.
Schneiderman's methods came under criticism from the supplement industry as well as outside experts who questioned the usefulness of DNA testing for herbal supplements and argued that such products are processed to the point that DNA is no longer necessarily present in the final product.
“These results do not ring true to me,” Pieter Cohen, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Prevention magazine in February. “The FDA spot-checks hundreds of companies, and most mainstream companies check that they put the correct plant substance into their products.
“So it's unbelievable that almost eight in 10 products tested by the attorney general would not even contain the correct plant. On the surface, something is terribly wrong with these results,” he said then.
Cohen couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
The settlement letter said the two sides “disagree” on whether federal rules, which don't require DNA-based testing to authenticate herbal supplements, are sufficient.
New York officials argued that the fact that the company agreed to use DNA testing earlier in the manufacturing process and to post the test results in an online database shows the value of using the testing method on such products.
What's more, they contend, the settlement significantly improves consumer protections by requiring retailers to post signs prominently in stores explaining the high degree of processing involved in extracting supplements from plants.
Schneiderman's office published statements from experts applauding the agreement, including one from David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The agreement GNC reached with New York state represents important progress in ensuring that supplements contain what they claim to,” he said. “But Congress should pass reform that would allow the FDA to police this marketplace and remove products that are dishonestly marketed or potentially dangerous.”
Under the deal, GNC will not sell the specific product lots that were the subject of the attorney general’s inquiry.
GNC said independent testing of its products, as well as the company's internal testing, conducted after the attorney general's inquiry began, showed that the firm complied with all regulations.
“A robust testing regime, careful sourcing regimen and detailed manufacturing specifications have always been core elements to ensuring that we provide our customers with high-quality products,” Archbold said.
GNC shares rose $3.22, or 7% Monday, to $49.26.