Herbs, supplements often sold deceptively: U.S. report

Wed May 26, 2010 3:47pm EDT
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By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sellers of ginseng, echinacea and other herbal and dietary supplements often cross the line in marketing their products, going as far as telling consumers the pills can cure cancer or replace prescription medications, a U.S. government probe found.

In an undercover probe, investigators at the Government Accountability Office also found that labels for some supplements claim to prevent or cure ailments like diabetes or heart disease -- a clear violation of U.S. law.

GAO staff targeted supplements most popular with older consumers and posed as elderly buyers in stores or over the telephone.

"The most egregious practices included suspect marketing claims that a dietary supplement prevented or cured extremely serious diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease," the GAO said in a report released on Wednesday at a Senate hearing.

For example, one shopper at a supplement specialty store was told that a garlic supplement could be taken instead of prescribed blood pressure drugs. Another staffer posing as a forgetful, elderly consumer was told by a salesperson that he could take aspirin and ginkgo biloba together with no harm. The Food and Drug Administration has said that combination can cause internal bleeding.

The GAO, which conducts investigations for Congress, also said it found trace amounts of potentially harmful contaminants such as lead and arsenic, but at levels that do not exceed federal guidelines.

Findings of pesticides, however, did exceed the FDA's advisory levels, the GAO said, and 16 of 40 supplements tested would violate the FDA's tolerance.

Manufacturers told the GAO that they were concerned about the contamination findings but "that the levels identified were too low to raise any issues" during their own testing.   Continued...