Research and technology from the University of Guelph are helping the State of New York crack down on fraudulent herbal products.
On Monday, New York’s Attorney General’s Office ordered four major national retailers to remove top-selling store-brand herbal products from their shelves, saying that the products contained substituted and potentially dangerous substances.
Using genetic tests, state authorities found four out of five top-selling brands of herbal supplements in the stores contained none of the herbs listed on their labels.
The tests used the DNA barcoding technique for identifying animal and plant species — using short regions of genetic material — that was first proposed by Guelph integrative biologist Paul Hebert, director of U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO).
The New York Attorney General’s Office also cited as evidence a 2013 study headed by Prof. Steve Newmaster, Integrative Biology, showing that nearly 60 per cent of herbal products tested contained plant species not listed on the label. The study was published in the journal BMC Medicine.
Newmaster’s research team developed standard methods and tests using DNA barcoding to identify and authenticate ingredients in herbal products.
The story was widely covered by the international media, including The New York Times, ABC News, Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, Washington Post, Forbes, Associated Press, Toronto Star, CTV News and Atlantic.
“It’s nice to see our work supported by further study,” said Newmaster, who is BIO’s botanical director.
“Contamination and substitution in herbal products present considerable health risks for consumers.”
Medicinal herbs now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the North American alternative medicine market, with more than 29,000 herbal substances sold, he said.
More than 1,000 companies worldwide make medicinal plant products worth more than $60 billion a year.
Canada has regulated natural health products since 2004. But regulators face a backlog of licence applications, and thousands of products on the market lack a full product licence.
Globally, regulatory problems involving natural health products continue to affect consistency and safety, Newmaster said.
He has helped develop an independent product certification body called TRU-ID, which establishes protocols and certifies testing labs to ensure consistency and promote standards.