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The New York Times reports that the New York State Attorney General is accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart "of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves."

The story says that the AG's office says it "conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements" at the retailers "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."

According to the Times, which broke the story, "Industry representatives have argued that any problems are caused by a handful of companies on the fringe of the industry. But New York’s investigation specifically targeted store brands at the nation’s drugstore and retail giants, which suggests that the problems are widespread ... The Food and Drug Administration has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients. But the announcement Monday was the first time that a law enforcement agency had threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it said were deliberately misleading herbal products."

The Times reports that Walgreen said it would immediately remove the offending products from its stores nationwide, even though the investigation only affects stores in New York. Walmart said it would reach out to its suppliers to determine appropriate next steps. GNC said it would cooperate with the investigation but stands behind the products. Target did not comment on the charges.

The long and detailed Times story can be read here.
KC's View:
Wow.

Let's forget for a moment the whole supplement issue. I've never much believed in them anyway, so I'm not hugely surprised here.

In so many ways, the real lesson of this story is that retailers are being held accountable for what they are selling. Blaming it on the supplier is not a refuge ... if you sell it, you're responsible for the accuracy and efficacy of the product.

This is the same argument, in essence, that I was making last week when I wrote about the fact that the Food safety Modernization Act makes CEOs personally responsible if they can live up to the new demands of that legislation, which go into effect in August.

Retailers are being held to account. It isn't entirely hard to imagine that there will be perp walks in the future.

One other thing. According to the Times, one of the reasons there aren't stricter laws about this stuff - supplements are exempt from the FDA's approval process for prescription drugs - is because the supplement industry has spent a ton of money lobbying legislators to stop that from happening. Once again, we get the government we deserve, and the best government money can buy.