Should retailers know what’s in their store brands?

Discussion
Feb 10, 2015

It’s been argued that food, drug and mass retailers selling thousands of products made by branded manufacturers can’t be expected to know the actual ingredients of every item they stock. But what about the products that carry retailers’ own labels?

Last week, the New York Attorney General’s Office sent letters to GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens telling them to immediately stop the sale of popular private label herbal supplements after “just 21% of the test results from store brand herbal supplements verified DNA from the plants listed on the products’ labels,” according to the Office’s statement. The tests found that asparagus, wild carrots, peas, powdered rice and other substances were used as fillers. In some cases, ingredients used could have proven dangerous to those with allergies.

According to the tests, the DNA matched the label 22 percent of the time for GNC, 41 percent for Target, 18 percent for Walgreens and only 4 percent for Walmart.

"Results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal," said Eric Schneiderman, New York’s Attorney General, in a statement. "They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients. At the end of the day, American corporations must step up to the plate and ensure that their customers are getting what they pay for, especially when it involves promises of good health."

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates supplements, manufacturers are not required to seek the agency’s approval before producing or selling the products. The FDA leaves it up to manufacturers and distributors to "make sure that all claims and information on the product label and in other labeling are truthful and not misleading."

According to a New York Times report, Walgreens said it would remove the products across the country and Walmart said it would "take appropriate action" with suppliers. While GNC said it would cooperate with the attorney general’s office, it continues to stand behind its testing methods and products. Target did not respond.

How will the New York Attorney General’s findings affect the sale of store brand supplements in the chains named in the investigation? Does the FDA need to be given greater authority by Congress to regulate the manufacture and sale of supplements?

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17 Comments on "Should retailers know what’s in their store brands?"

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Max Goldberg
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

I think this ruling will have a profound effect and retailers need to pay attention. The NY findings are a wake-up call for the supplement industry. Look for consumer complaints and lawsuits. Retailers would be wise to make sure that the products sold under house brands live up to their billing.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The supplement problem is very complicated. Because the traditional pharmaceutical companies can’t copyright them, there’s not a lot of research done in this country. And so, the presumption is that they’re all harmless.

But they are neither quality-controlled (as the article explains) or studied correctly. And so you end up with stuff like this, or the Ma Huang scandal of the late twentieth century (it could flip your heart right out).

Good research and regulation seems to occur in Germany. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of this happening here in the foreseeable future, which leaves us open to all kinds of quackery, and potentially missing out on real benefits.

Ken Lonyai
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

There is a problem in the supplement industry regarding ingredients. There are some high-quality brands that provide real products, as advertised and ethically, and then there’s a slippery slope downwards from there. Just as any supplement or product company is responsible for their claims, evasive marketing jargon, or outright deceptions, so too should be any private label store brand trying to hide behind assertions of ignorance regarding product ingredients. If they put their name on it they are responsible.

I applaud the investigation and hope there are more.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Facts and the Internet will regulate the manufacturers of supplements. Given the facts and the immediacy of social media, shoppers will regulate with their purchases. Retailers need to take responsibility for what it places on its store shelves and virtual shelves. Requiring the manufacturers to provide an independent lab report to verify and take responsibility for its products should be a minimal requirement. Retailers are all-too-often blinded by margins and not social responsibility. Shoppers will show their feelings and emotions by how they choose to spend their money. The trusted retailer should take responsibility to, at the very least, be honest.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

This has been an issue for all supplements, not just store brands. When regulation is relegated to the manufacturers, don’t expect many batches to be rejected.

Warren Thayer
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The New York Attorney General’s findings will affect the sale for a little while, but barring a class action suit, which is a real possibility, nothing will change long-term and this will totally blow over in six months. Greater authority for the FDA? Well, somehow, there should be teeth in a law somewhere to penalize gross offenders like the ones in this story. But that’s unlikely to happen considering Congressional gridlock and the power of lobbyists. Even though I think I’m pretty jaded, I confess to being dismayed at how badly the chains in question blew this, in terms of ongoing quality control checks of their private labels. Makes me think it is probably rampant.

J. Kent Smith
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Retailers as the “suppliers” of the product in the customers’ eyes will have to behave as suppliers. I think that’s what customers would expect, that the retailers stand behind the product. Indeed it is probably overdue.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

These findings SHOULD prompt retailers to do a better job of quality control on their own labels. Will consumers translate this lax quality control to wondering what is in the food products that they are eating in a retailer’s own brand? That could be disastrous for all concerned, from manufacturers to retailers to consumers. Once trust is broken it is very hard to reinstate.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

This problem really bothers me and should bother all consumers. If a retailer is putting their name on a brand they need to assume the responsibility and liability that the product is what it is reported to be. They should also do this for all of the products they sell but more so for products that carry their name.

Reminds me of an old song from the show Annie Get Your Gun:

I didn’t know the gun was loaded and I am so so sorry my friend.

Just don’t think that is going to stand up in a court of law.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The supplements industry is a hot mess as a direct result of insufficient federal oversight. It’s super-unlikely that this Congress will address it, so retailers will have to protect themselves by continually testing these private-label products to avoid another black eye in the future.

Anne Howe
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The retailer that rises up and sets new standards for testing, monitoring and communicating transparently with shoppers is poised to win big in this area. Trust is huge in the wellness space and when four or five major retailers get “slapped” in this way, consumer confidence gets shaken. Which retailer will see and step up to this big opportunity?

Gordon Arnold
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Until our legislators make those responsible for the mistakes we see here in this discussion, tolerance is how we will deal with them. The millions of victims, commonly called a few individuals, who were used in place of lab rats to discover the levels of severity of our reactions to these products, in what some refer to as deliberate oversights will continue to be pushed aside for the sake of tax and margin revenue. This story is but the tip of an iceberg that is rammed by society every day with the cry for help left unheard. But that’s just what I think!

Tom Brown
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Supplements should be heavily regulated, just like everything else that is sold and swallowed, plain and simple.

David Schulz
Guest
David Schulz
2 years 10 months ago

To have the FDA scrutinize every morsel of food that we ingest would be overkill. Does the dietary supplement industry need to be cleaned up? Of course. Should the FDA (or the Department of Agriculture, which is already in our food business) be directly in control of it? No. But the question here is a highly-politicized prosecutor singling out retailers for excoriation over products on their shelves. (Conflict materials prohibitions anyone?) The N.Y. Department of Agriculture is looking for headlines, not resolutions, by castigating retailers for not knowing down to the molecule the contents of every item sold in their stores. By accepting industry-accepted standards, retailers are ridiculed and then held liable for the possible or alleged wrongdoing of suppliers.

Just like the old sweatshop apparel producers. Once retailers found out about them, they worked to remedy the situation. The first line of action when something is determined to be unacceptable should be to resolve the situation, not publicly reprimand and punish retailers at the end of the supply chain.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
2 years 10 months ago

Companies need to have an in-house quality control board where they spot-check product. Don’t trust your vendor because it’s your reputation on the line.

Alan Cooper
Guest
Alan Cooper
2 years 10 months ago

This will have a major impact and a ripple effect. It behooves the major retailers of supplements to do random, statistically sound tests of the products they choose to put on their shelves. Consumers will demand it.

Nancy Stewart
Guest
Nancy Stewart
2 years 10 months ago

FDA has ample authority to regulate dietary supplements, and as part of the regulation, dietary supplement companies are required to adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), which includes identity testing. DNA barcode testing is an inappropriate test for herbal products made with extractions because the extraction of phytochemicals that takes place during the manufacturing process can damage or leave behind the plant DNA. Scientific experts familiar are questioning the results of the tests from the Attorney General’s office given the use of the DNA barcode test method. For more information on this issue visit our website: crnusa.org

Full disclosure: We are the trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.

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