DNA barcoding is here to stay, UNPA's Israelsen warns industry

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image © iStockPhoto
Image © iStockPhoto

Related tags: Dna

The application of DNA barcoding to herbal supplements - which in the hands of the NY AG has been used as a bludgeon - could be turned into a significant boon for the industry, said United Natural Products Alliance president Loren Israelsen.  The organization yesterday announced a forum on the topic set for Salt Lake City in early November.

“We would like to build consensus in the industry as to what is the appropriate and logical use for this analytical technique. In the hands of NY AG Schneiderman it has been weaponized; we have an opportunity to turn it into a useful tool,” ​he said.

“DNA barcoding is not a little deal. It is a global, disrupting technology that is affecting scores of industries,”​ Israelsen said.

Israelsen sat down the NutraIngredients-USA at the Rocky Mountain Dietary Supplement Forum in Boulder, CO where he was leading a session. Israelsen delved into the import of Schneiderman’s latest move on devil’s claw supplements. The message is clear, he said:  DNA barcoding is here to stay, and best tack to take now is to accept that fact and find a way to profit from the situation rather than continuing to take issue with how the NY AG went about his investigation or what his ultimate aims are. 

Rapid learning curve

For one thing, Israelsen said that Schneiderman and his staff have quickly learned from the mistakes they made when they sent the first cease and desist letters to GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreens. In that case, industry experts roundly criticized both the way the tests were done (they were carried out by a lab unfamiliar with herbal products) and the conclusions that were drawn about the absence of DNA in what in many cases were products based on extracts, which if properly made would contain little or no DNA  of the parent plant in any case.

In the latest episode on devil’s claw, Israelsen said the program was being directed by one of Schneiderman’s most senior staff members. The scientific underpinning came from tests done at the New York Botanical Garden as part of a previous, unrelated DNA study of devil’s claw and subpoenaed by the NY AG’s office. Despite carping from the industry about the fact that various literature references say something called ‘devil’s claw’ can consist of Harpagophytum procumbens​, Harpagophytum zeyheri​ or a mixture of the two, Schneiderman is on much more solid scientific ground this go round, Israelsen said.

“The staff members in the AG’s office really believe this is the real deal. They have acquired tremendous insights into the industry. They have acquired a lot of knowledge about DNA barcoding and how it can be used. We think devil’s claw is the just first test case; it’s a kind of artillery ranging shot. They have a list of other botanicals for which this approach could be used,”​ he said.

“Their concern is that the industry has a very tenuous grip on identity, and for them that becomes an issue of deception for the consumer. Nobody has come back to criticize the methodology in this letter (on devil’s claw) so it’s likely it will be used again,”​ Israelsen said.

Two day summit

Israelsen said the broadening scope of DNA barcoding technology made it imperative to gather together industry experts for UNPA’s Dietary Supplement Analytical Summit set for Nov. 5 and 6 in Salt Lake City. The forum will aim to provide attendees with enough information to understand how fast the dietary supplement marketplace is changing and what companies will need to adapt to new conditions. Center stage will be the new DNA barcoding technology.

“Everyone has to understand that this is not going away. There is a global movement afoot to apply this technology. There are thousands of people working to build a reference library for plants, fungi and other species,”​ Israelsen said.

Among the speakers at the event will be officials from GNC, who will explain the details and the reasons for that company’s agreement with Schneiderman that includes a DNA testing element. Other experts will look at the technology itself in detail, and where the industry stands in terms of the development of verified reference standards.  Additional segments will look at what tools and additional capabilities dietary supplement companies will need to integrate this technology.  Finally, a forward-looking segment of the program will examine the future ramifications of the rapid growth of this testing regimen, including whether Chinese suppliers, the source of the many of the ingredients in the industry, are ready to take part.

For more information on the summit and to register, click here​.

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