Lawyers in Little Rock and Rogers have filed suit in the Western District federal court in Fayetteville against Walmart, Target and Walgreens stores for selling herbal products that an investigation in New York discovered contained little or none of the ingredients advertised on the bottle. Herbal products named in the Arkansas suits are Spring Valley brands of echinacea, St. John's Wort, gingko biloba and gingseng (sold at Walmart); Up & Up brands of gingko biloba, St. John's Wort and valerian root (Target); and Finest Nutrition brands of gingko biloba, St. John's Wort, ginseng and echinacea (Walgreen Co.) The suits allege the corporations have violated deceptive trade practices, deceptive advertising, breach of warranty and unjust enrichment.
The suits were filed on behalf of Alyssa Clemons, suing Walgreen Co.; and Shane Sparks, suing Target and Walmart, by Kenneth Shemin of Rogers, Thomas P. Thrash and Marcus Bozeman of Little Rock and several out-of-state attorneys. They are seeking class-action status on the suits, which they say involve a monetary value of more than $5 million.
The suits were prompted by an investigation by the New York state attorney general's office that found that the supplements labeled as herbs contained such fillers as powdered rice, asparagus, houseplants, primrose, wild carrot, pine and soybeans. The three retailers named in the Arkansas cases and GNC, whose Herbal Plus products were also found to make claims not substantiated by the attorney general's genetic tests, were sent cease-and-desist letters last week.
A release from Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said six Spring Valley supplements were tested from Walmart stores in Buffalo, Utica and Westchester, N.Y., and none "consistently revealed DNA from the labeled herb. One bottle of garlic had a minimal showing of garlic DNA, as did one bottle of saw palmetto. All remaining bottles failed to produce DNA verifying the labeled herb." Of the six Finest Nutrition brand herbs, bought from Walgreens in Brooklyn, Rochester and Watertown, "only one supplement tested for its labeled contents: saw palmetto."
Target's supplements were slightly more reliable: Three of the six Up & Up brands tested "showed nearly consistent presence of the labeled contents: echinacea (with one sample identifying rice), garlic and saw palmetto." But the gingko biloba, St. John's Wort and valerian root had none of the labeled herbs' DNA.
Only one Herbal Plus brand (purchased from GNC stores in Binghamton, Harlem, Plattsburgh and Suffolk) tested consistently for its labeled garlic. One bottle of saw palmetto tested positive for containing the plant. Tests on bottles of gingko biloba, St. John's Wort, ginseng and echinacea revealed no DNA from the herbs.
"This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage 'buyer beware' may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements," Schneiderman said.
Spokesman James Graham of Walgreen Co. told the Times that the five products named in the AG's order have been removed from store shelves, and Target spokesman Evan Lapiska issued this statement: "We are partnering with our vendor to investigate the matters raised by the report and intend to cooperate fully with the Attorney General. While that investigation proceeds, Target will comply with the New York Attorney General's request to pull these products, and will do so in all of our stores."
Walmart U.S. issued this statement: "Based on the testing performed by our suppliers we have not found any issues with the relevant products, but in order to comply with the Attorney General's request we have stopped selling them in New York. We take this matter very seriously and will be conducting side by side analysis because we are 100 percent committed to providing our customers safe products."
Thrash said a suit against GNC is also being prepared. GNC declined to respond to the Times until it saw the Arkansas lawsuits filed against the other suppliers. The GNC store in Park Plaza Mall in Midtown still has on its shelves Herbal Plus gingko biloba, St. John's Wort, ginseng and echinacea.
Thrash, Bozeman and Shemin are involved in another mislabeling suit. They represent Connie Stafford, who is suing Whole Foods Market California Inc. for labeling some of its products as "organic" or "all-natural" when they contain artificial ingredients. The suit was filed in circuit court, but federal Judge Leon Holmes ruled the case should be heard in federal court.