Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.

Ozark Roots in the Ukraine

by Steven Foster |


What do the Ozarks and Ukraine have in common? Echinacea—a genus of nine species native to  central and eastern North America. Three species are used in commerce, one of which is the common Echinacea purpurea grown as a garden perennial, but it also occurs wild in and is native to the Ozarks. Echinacea purpurea root is the most commonly used herb in the Ukraine, both in terms of commercial production and as a home-grown medicinal herb.

In the 1980s I collected seed of wild-growing Echinacea in the Ozarks and in 1984 produced what was at that time the most comprehensive literature review on Echinacea. The work came to the attention of researchers at the Academy of Science of Ukraine. A steady flow of letters arrived from several scientists in Poltava, a city about 200 miles southeast of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Seed of wild-collected Echinacea purpurea from Izard and Stone counties in Arkansas was supplied to agronomists in Poltava. By the early 1990s, the progeny of that wild Ozark Echinacea purpurea was cultivated in the Ukraine on a large scale.

My correspondence with botanist Viktor Samorodov and agronomist Sergei Pospelov of the Botany Department, Academy of Science in Poltava, and Victoriya F. Pochernyayeva, professor of clinical pharmacology, with the Public Health Ministry of Ukraine, began a few months after April 26th, 1986, the date of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Ukraine was still part of the former Soviet Union.  The Chernobyl disaster prompted scale-up of commercial cultivation of Echinacea after research by Dr. Pochernyayeva showed that extracts of Echinacea purpurea have a protective effect on free radical damage of organs and tissues exposed to ionizing radiation, a protective affect on the male reproductive system (from radiation exposure), and were useful in treatment of mouth and gums lesions (also associated with radiation exposure). In relatively short order they developed various preparations and modes of delivery. One of the flagship products was an Echinacea vodka.

In June of 1999, an International Echinacea Symposium, hosted by the American Herbal Products Association, was held in Kansas City. I helped arrange for my three Ukrainian colleagues to come to the symposium as featured presenters. Following the Symposium, they piled into my car and came back to my home in Fayetteville, Arkasas and spent a week in the Ozarks. My Ukrainian friends dubbed me “the king of Echinacea in Ukraine.” I trust they will survive the current crisis another chapter in Ukraine’s turbulent history.