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Herbal Dietary Supplements: Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Dangerous Advice

GAO-10-662T Published: May 26, 2010. Publicly Released: May 26, 2010.
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Recent studies have shown that use of herbal dietary supplements--chamomile, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng--by the elderly within the United States has increased substantially. Sellers, such as retail stores, Web sites, and distributors, often claim these supplements help improve memory, circulation, and other bodily functions. GAO was asked to determine (1) whether sellers of herbal dietary supplements are using deceptive or questionable marketing practices and (2) whether selected herbal dietary supplements are contaminated with harmful substances. To conduct this investigation, GAO investigated a nonrepresentative selection of 22 storefront and mail-order retailers of herbal dietary supplements. Posing as elderly consumers, GAO investigators asked sales staff (by phone and in person) at each retailer a series of questions regarding herbal dietary supplements. GAO also reviewed written marketing language used on approximately 30 retail Web sites. Claims were evaluated against recognized scientific research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). GAO also had an accredited lab test 40 unique popular single-ingredient herbal dietary supplements for the presence of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, organichlorine pesticides, and organophosphorous pesticides.

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ClaimsElderly personsFederal regulationsFraudProduct evaluationProduct safetyRisk managementTestingUndercover operationsCommercial productsConsumer protectionFood and drug legislationFood inspectionMarketing