It’s all over the news right now –herbal supplements aren’t what they say they are. This has made headlines thanks to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accusing four retail giants of selling products that were fraudulently labelled and possibly dangerous to human health. In a surprising move, he sent cease-and-desist letters to GCN, Target, Walgreens and Walmart and asked them to explain the process they use to ensure that what they are selling really is what it says it is.
On top of a Clarkson University study that he commissioned, Schneiderman also cited a 2013 study published by University of Guelph researchers. This study used DNA barcoding to test 44 different products by 12 different companies, showing that a third of them didn’t contain any trace of the plant that they claimed to have.
This news struck the scientists at ISI with a sense of déjà vu. More than 10 years ago we were at the forefront of using DNA fingerprinting to demonstrate the identity of herbal products in Canada. With help from another University of Guelph researcher and a grant from the National Research Council, we presented a study on Echinacea herbal products to the first Herb & Spice conference, held at the Guelph offices of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs in 2004.
Around the same time, an ISI scientist was selected to sit on the Health Canada, Natural Health Products Directorate, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) Working Group. As a part of the Herbal Medicines and Botanicals group, we attended several sessions from 2002-2003 to help draft guidelines for the manufacturing of herbal supplements. In 2004, the Canadian government passed the final bill, establishing the Natural Health Products Directorates Good Manufacturing Practices.
ISI pursued the area of botanicals analysis and developed analytical methods for all of the common herbal supplements and marketed it for two years, anticipating the need for validation studies to comply with the GMP legislation. This work never materialized and we have focused on other areas of expertise. We at ISI find the news from New York interesting and we are realizing that we were, perhaps, 10 years ahead of our time.
 CBC News reported on this in 2013 and The University of Guelph issued a Campus Bulletin on their connection to the New York Attorney General case when it broke in the news.