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Complaint re. Anahad O’Connor’s Coverage of NY AG’s “Investigation”

Via E-mail

Margaret Sullivan, Ombudsman and Public Editor:  public@nytimes.com

Barbara Strauch, Science Editor:  strauch@nytimes.com

The New York Times

Re:       Complaint re. Anahad O’Connor’s Coverage of NY AG’s “Investigation”

Of Herbal Supplements: Inaccurate, Not Factual, Not Balanced; Retraction Needed

Dear Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Corcoran:

We are writing to address the grossly one-sided reporting and coverage of Anahad O’Connor on dietary supplements generally and in particular concerning the story of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s “investigation” of herbal supplements, starting with a front page story in the New York Times (here as NY Times or NYT) on February 3, 2015.  The NYT has shown a distinct bias against dietary supplements even before the creation of this FDA-regulated category by Congress in 1994.  But your paper's most recent reporting in February demonstrated an especially egregious disregard for the science concerning the method used by NY AG Eric Schneiderman – DNA barcode testing of herbal extracts. Mr. O'Connor chose to ignore the expert opinions of a number of official bodies, including the Food and Drug Administration which rejects using DNA barcoding for analysis of herbal extracts.  Mr. O'Connor's refusal to report the facts has persisted despite science-based rebuttals published in other mainstream publications as well as the herbal and supplement trade associations since February 3, when the NYT and Mr. O’Connor persisted in repeating the results of the NY AG finding only 20% or even 0% of the herbs declared on the labels.  This false reportage is seen in an Editorial of Feb. 7, and O’Connor articles of Feb. 12 and Feb. 16.

The analytical method used – DNA barcoding – is not applicable to herbal extracts primarily because DNA is not soluble in ethanol (alcohol), which is used for the extraction process. As reported in The Tan Sheet on February 6, FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) issued a statement that it does not use DNA testing on herbal supplements, or on any dietary ingredients for that matter.  DNA testing is appropriate only to identify a species using a sufficiently intact part of the plant.

Omitting the fact that DNA barcode testing of botanicals had been completely discredited by the scientific community in 2013, The New York Times published a lead front-page article on the AG’s actions, and two other articles (including a piece in the Science Times), all three on February 3.  On the subject of the reliability of DNA testing, Times reporter Anahad O’Connor predictably ignored the comments he had solicited from the highly respected American Botanical Council (“ABC”), and undoubtedly other comments he either received or read – or should have read – in the supplement industry trade press.  In rebutting the NY AG’s methods and conclusions, ABC’s founder and president, Mark Blumenthal, described the use of DNA testing for herbal extracts as inappropriate and inaccurate; but O’Connor failed to include, or even to note, any of ABC’s remarks – especially this key observation:

DNA testing seldom is able to properly identify chemically complex herbal extracts, as little or no DNA is extracted in many commercial extraction processes. Basing its actions on the basis of only one testing technology from only one laboratory, the NY AG results are preliminary at best, and require further substantiation. Additional testing using microscopic analysis and validated chemical methods should be conducted to confirm the initial results upon which the AG is acting.  [Emphases added.]

Historically, the NY Times has been a lopsided critic of supplements for at least 25 years, and this negative attitude apparently prevails throughout the institution.  Consequently, this newspaper overlooked other deficiencies in the AG’s testing procedures.  For instance, the AG’s hand-picked laboratory had no prior experience in herbal extracts or supplements, nor did the AG seek a second or third confirming lab, nor did he use what would have been standard confirming methods, TL-HPLC or HPLC. (TL = Thin Layer Chromatography; HPLC = High Performance Liquid Chromatography). Neither did the AG’s team bother to visit the manufacturing facilities or request any retained samples of raw materials of the herbal products at issue.  Obviously, neither did the Times' Mr. O'Connor.

For “expertise,” the AG hired James A. Schulte II of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., to conduct the tests using DNA barcoding technology, an academic in the field of evolutionary zoology, not botany—specifically, an expert on testing of dinosaur bones, not contemporary herbal extracts.  In sum, the NY AG used the wrong analytical test, the wrong expert, only one (and wrong type of) test, and only one (unqualified) lab.  Though within days of the three articles in the February 3 NYT, there were numerous statements rebutting, even condemning, his method and therefore his results, the AG's own behavior was equally contemptuous of any scientific results or expert opinion.  Even two vocal supplement critics—Pieter Cohen, M.D. of Harvard, and Ted Cooperman of ConsumerLabs.com—stated promptly and publically that the DNA barcode testing is not reliable for herbal extracts.

In addition to the American Botanical Council, trade associations, including AHPA, CRN, UNPA and NPA, all pointed out the fatal flaws in the DNA barcode testing method for analyzing herbal extracts.  The correct methods and standards are explained by, and readily available from the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), European Pharmacopoeia (EP), and United States Pharmacopeia (USP), and NIH.  Mr. O’Connor did not do his basic homework. Click here to read more.
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