AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Big sellers of dietary supplements, including GNC, have come under scrutiny over what's actually in those supplements. And today, GNC announced major new testing and quality control procedures. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that this comes after a high-profile probe by the state of New York.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When the New York attorney general sent cease-and-desist letters to big supplement makers, including Target, Walmart and GNC last month, asking them to take some products off the shelves, a big kerfuffle ensued. The state's test found many supplements did not contain the herbs or active ingredients they were said to have. Here's New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: We found that in 79 percent of the cases, there was no evidence of the DNA of the product listed on the label. So we would test for the DNA for echinacea or St. John's wort. It wasn't there.
AUBREY: And the question was, why? Was it that the ingredients weren't there or that the testing methods weren't able to detect them? The state was using DNA testing to determine what was in the supplements. And the industry pointed out that during the extraction and manufacturing process, the DNA of the raw materials - so the herb or the plant the supplement is being made from - can be destroyed. So going forward, GNC has said it will expand its own testing and authentication procedures. For instance, they have committed to testing their raw materials earlier in the supply chain, and they will use DNA testing before the extraction process. This could mean testing supplies of, say, echinacea before it's made into a supplement. Eric Schneiderman says this change, along with other changes GNC has agreed to, will help protect consumers.
SCHNEIDERMAN: We want to ensure that customers are getting what they believe they're getting based on the label. We don't want them to be defrauded into thinking they're buying something that actually is not present in the supplement.
AUBREY: And in addition, GNC has agreed to do more testing for hidden allergens and other possible contaminants that could pose a danger to consumers. For instance...
SCHNEIDERMAN: There was a case of something called black cohosh, which is used to eliminate the symptoms of menopause, that was tainted, causing liver damage.
AUBREY: That was not a GNC product, but Schneiderman says his hope is that other supplement retailers will look at the steps GNC is taking and push for similar changes from other suppliers.
SCHNEIDERMAN: We view this agreement as a potential model for others in the industry.
AUBREY: But it's not clear that the broader supplement industry is receptive to the changes mapped out in the agreement between Schneiderman and GNC. Steve Mister is the president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a major supplement industry trade association.
STEVE MISTER: I certainly hope it does not serve as a model. This is an effort to placate the New York attorney general. It should not be seen as a model for the industry.
AUBREY: Mister says the attorney general's probe has highlighted the importance of doing the right kind of testing and quality control, starting with the raw materials all the way to the finished products, but he doesn't want a patchwork of state regulations. He says there are already procedures in place in the industry to ensure the safety and authenticity of their products.
MISTER: So perhaps if any good comes of this, it renews the conversation around the importance of doing the right test and making sure that the test that we are doing is the right one.
AUBREY: As for GNC, the agreement requires implementation of the new procedures for all of its more than 6,000 stores nationwide. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.