Cease-and-desist requests to GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart on Feb. 2 followed genetic tests that raised red flags about questionable labeling and possible contamination of certain supplements such as Gingko biloba, Echinacea and St. John’s wort.
While both supplement brands the Star located have labels specifying they were manufactured for Canadian branches of the American retailers, Toronto-based business ethics expert Chris MacDonald stressed that potential manufacturing issues and a lack of standardization may exist on both sides of the border.
Consumers can search for licensed products in an online database and identify them in stores by looking for an eight-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label.
“Should it be determined that there are non-compliant natural health products being sold in Canada, Health Canada will take appropriate action based on the risk posed to the general public,” the statement said.
The New York cease-and-desist letters outlined the results of a recent investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Office, and noted previous Canadian research raising questions about the authenticity of some supplement products.
Newmaster’s study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, used DNA barcoding — a technique developed at the University of Guelph, based on earlier research — to analyze 44 herbal products representing 12 companies.
The study found nearly 60 per cent of the herbal products analyzed contained unlabeled plant ingredients, and more than 20 per cent included fillers such as rice and wheat, also not listed on the labels.
“There’s a whole pile of problems, because some of the fillers could be toxic,” Newmaster said. “We saw in the studies that there’s wheat, and people with celiac problems don’t want wheat in their herbal products.”
The DNA barcoding technique used in Newmaster’s research and the recent New York investigation identifies species using a short genetic sequence. It’s similar to how a supermarket scanner can tell the difference between products based on the black stripes of each bar code.
Newmaster questioned why Canadian regulatory bodies haven’t adopted this homegrown technique to regulate supplement products sold on Canadian soil.
DNA barcoding is not expressly listed in Health Canada’s Quality of Natural Health Products Guide, but the department said it would likely be considered an acceptable technique for chemical identification, provided it was appropriate for the ingredient being identified.
“We have the same access to the testing technology as the Americans do,” said MacDonald. “It’s kind of a mystery to me . . . that the Canadian government seems so incredibly hesitant to do something.”
However, the technique is being questioned by researchers who say it’s not an ideal method for supplement regulations, because it doesn’t catch contaminations like pharmaceuticals, including banned or prescription drugs.
Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen studies dangerous supplements and is among those concerned that the New York Attorney General’s Office was too hasty in its application of DNA barcoding.
“Let’s say you mixed a little bit of an herb with a pharmaceutical. Guess what the DNA barcode says? Perfect. It says the supplement would be perfect — because you find the right DNA of the plant, and of course the pharmaceutical has no DNA,” he explained.
“It’s a bit of a runaway industry,” echoed Dr. Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba. “There is a whole lot of snake oil being marketed out there, and unlike Canada, it’s a bit of a wild west in the U.S.”
“It’s always important that consumers ask the question about authenticity of products,” he said.
With files from Robin Levinson King
How big is Canada’s supplement industry?
73: Percentage of Canadians who regularly take natural health products (2010 Ipsos-Reid survey)