Clicks stands by its herbal products despite US scam findings

Retailer Clicks says it stands by the integrity of US-based GNC supplements, for which it holds the exclusive distribution rights in SA, and will continue to sell GNC herbal products despite a finding by the New York attorney-general’s office that GNC was selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous products.

The development casts the spotlight on the safety and efficacy of herbal supplements, which are not subject to the same regulatory oversight as pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, New York attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, ordered GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreens to stop selling some of their brands after tests found only one in five products contained the herbs on their labels, and that most of them contained cheap fillers such as powdered rice. Some of the products also contained allergens.

“The investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,”  Schneiderman said in a statement.

The investigation came as a welcome surprise to health experts who have long complained about the quality and safety of dietary supplements, which are exempt from the strict regulatory oversight applied to prescription drugs, reports the New York Times.

Clicks launched GNC in SA last March, and now sells its products in 165 stores. On Wednesday, GM Sean Kristafor says GNC disputed the New York attorney-general’s findings, which he said were based on inappropriate tests.

“The Council for Responsible Nutrition says DNA-barcoding technology is not the correct test, and we were not given an opportunity to review the results.

“GNC stands by the efficacy of its products. It has removed them in New York but not elsewhere,” Kristafor says.

He adds GNC tested all its products with methods approved by governing bodies such as the US Pharmacopeia and British Pharmacopeia. The methods the US attorney-general used to test its products had not been approved by these bodies, he says.

Kristafor says Clicks did not conduct its own tests on the products it imported from GNC’s distribution centre in Greenville, South Carolina, but paid a consultancy to review the products’ “quality certificates”.

US authorities tested six different “herbal plus” products bought from four GNC retailers in New York state: Gingko biloba, St John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea and Saw Palmetto. Of the 24 bottles assessed, only the garlic product tested consistently for its labelled contents, and only one bottle of the saw palmetto did.

None of the remaining products yielded DNA from the herb on the label, and there were a host of contaminants including rice, alfalfa, spruce and legumes.

The attorney general’s investigation was prompted by an article in the New York Times in 2013 that raised questions about widespread labelling fraud in the supplement industry. The article referred to research at the University of Guelph in Canada that found that as many as a third of herbal supplements tested did not contain the plants listed on their labels — only cheap fillers instead.

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.

“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” said Dr Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”

SA Medicines Control Council registrar Joey Gouws says she would ask local inspectors to look into the issue, and that she would comment at a later stage.

Source: Business Day; NY Times