Wal-Mart, GNC Said to Face Continuing Supplement Probe

New York’s attorney general is demanding more information from big U.S. retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and GNC Holdings Inc. about the herbal supplements they sell, a person familiar with the matter said.

The request for information on ingredients and health claims is the latest move in Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe of the $32 billion U.S. dietary supplement industry. Last week, he told the retailers to remove some products from their shelves because he said they lacked key ingredients.

Schneiderman sent subpoenas to Wal-Mart, GNC, Walgreens and Target Corp. on Wednesday seeking information about the origins of ingredients in their supplements and the health benefits described on labels, said the person, who asked not to be named because the investigation isn’t public.

The attorney general wants to know whether the ingredients are natural or synthetic, where they are grown and who the suppliers are, according to the person. He’s also seeking documents the companies relied on in asserting health claims, the person said.

The subpoenas follow Schneiderman’s announcement of results from tests into store-brand supplements. There were signs that some products lacked key ingredients identified on their labels, such as echinacea and ginkgo biloba, or contained substances that weren’t listed, including rice or tropical houseplants, he said.

‘Good Health’

“The industry has a responsibility to make sure consumers know what they are paying for, especially when the product includes promises of good health,” Schneiderman said in a statement Wednesday. “The burden is on the industry now to prove that the manufacture of herbal supplements is being held to a rigorous standard.”

Health claims being examined by Schneiderman include statements that GNC’s ginkgo biloba “may support mental sharpness” and that Wal-Mart’s Spring Valley brand echinacea “supports healthy immune function,” according to the person familiar with the probe.

Evan Lapiska, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Target, and Emily Hartwig, a spokeswoman for Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., said in e-mailed statements that the companies will continue cooperating with Schneiderman.

Disputed Findings

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart “just received the subpoena requesting this new information” and “will respond as appropriate,” spokesman Brian Nick said.

Pittsburgh-based GNC has disputed Schneiderman’s findings and called his testing methods “incomplete and unreliable,” saying it conducts its own “rigorous and generally accepted testing.” The company said Monday it “refuted” allegations by Schneiderman in a Feb. 2 letter ordering the retailer to pull items from shelves.

GNC provided “full and robust responses to every question raised in his letter, including original test results and the results of retesting,” Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for GNC with Sard Verbinnen & Co., said in an e-mailed statement.

“All results demonstrated that our products are pure, safe and fully compliant,” Davis said. “The Attorney General has refused to provide us access to his test results and therefore we cannot comment on the allegations in this subpoena.”

James A. Schulte II of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, was hired by Schneiderman to conduct the test using a technique called DNA barcoding, based on work by researchers at Ontario’s University of Guelph. DNA barcodes can be used to determine the exact plant species being tested, Schneiderman said.

“Rather than attacking testing methods that have been validated by more than 70 published papers, the time has come for the herbal supplements industry to put concerns about what is and is not included in their products to rest,” a spokeswoman for Schneiderman, Liz DeBold, said in a statement Wednesday.

She declined to comment on the new subpoenas.

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