BMC newspaper launches investigation into 2013 Newmaster article that sparked NY AG case

The 2013 article by Dr. Newmaster and his group detailed an analysis of 44 herbal supplements from 12 companies using DNA barcoding. The researchers reported that almost 60% of the products tested contained DNA barcodes of plant species not listed on the labels.

Published in the open access journal BMC Medicine, ​the article has been cited over 300 times*, viewed over 170,000 times and quoted numerous times in mainstream media, by the journal’s own measurements​.

Although it was widely criticized by analytical and botanical experts at the time of its publication – notably, the The American Botanical Council was quick to seek his retraction​ – the paper not only survived, but was taken over by the New York Times. the Time’The report was the spark that ignited a fire in the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who then conducted his own controversial investigation and led to letters being sent to GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens. in 2015 telling them to stop selling herbal supplements.

AG Schneiderman’s own testing using DNA technology claimed that 79% of the products tested in the survey did not contain the labeled substance or contained other unlisted ingredients.

Schneiderman’s investigation has extended to other brands of herbal supplements, and other state attorneys general have launched similar investigations. Eventually, some companies agreed to regulations and/or changes to business processes and practices, with some agreeing to incorporate DNA barcoding into their testing programs.

As a result, the demand for DNA testing has increased. In 2017, Dr. Newmaster founded the NHP Research Alliance, which aimed to advance the use of DNA testing and molecular diagnostics in the quality assurance of natural health products, including dietary supplements, thereby providing a solution to a problem created by his 2013 paper.

Dr. Newmaster did not respond to our attempts to contact him.

An explosive item in Science

But the document that started it all is now at the center of a storm of allegations of fraud, plagiarism and missing data, which are extensively detailed in a article in Science​.

According to the article, a 43-page allegation letter sent to the University of Guelph (UG) last summer by eight researchers from UG, University of Toronto, Columbia University Columbia and Stanford University called for the 2013 paper to be retracted, citing major problems in the study and two others by Newmaster and colleagues.

This isn’t the first time Dr. Newmaster’s papers have been called into question: Last year, a 2014 paper by Ken Thompson and Dr. Newmaster was removed from Biodiversity and Conservationafter Thompson raised concerns about data availability, data sources, and reproducibility.

When asked to comment on allegations of Science​, Lin Lee, editor-in-chief of BMC Medicine​ at Springer Nature, said: “While we cannot discuss the investigation further while it is ongoing, we can confirm that the Springer Nature Research Integrity team is providing advice to the journal’s editorial team on its investigation of the issues raised. in accordance with COPE guidelines, which should be followed for best practice purposes.

The University of Guelph released the following statement: “The U of G is aware of the scientific paper on Dr. Steven Newmaster, who is a professor at the U of G. The University takes allegations of research misconduct very seriously. There is an investigation active on this situation.It is treated according to a fair and standard process, which involves questions of confidentiality.

“The University will continue to follow due process and take appropriate action based on the outcome of the investigation. Details of the investigation are confidential by our collective agreement, responsible conduct of research policyand Tri-agency government requirements.

“Incalculable Damage”

Commenting on the news, Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), which led calls for the journal’s retraction in 2013, told NutraIngredients-USA: “I take no pleasure in having this conversation. There is neither pleasure nor jubilation in saying “we told you so”, but this document should be retracted. It was in the title of our press release in 2013.

“This paper has caused incalculable, and in many cases unnecessary, damage. Leaving aside the reputational and economic damage to the industry for a moment, look at the damage in the scientific community: this article has been widely cited in the scientific and clinical literature. It is insinuated in the scientific literature and, with the exception of ABC’s press release,went unchallenged for nine years.

Blumenthal also said it calls into question the journal’s peer review and/or editorial process and how an article containing “so many flaws”could be published.

“ABC maintains its original 2013 position that this document should be withdrawn,” he said.

“The erosion of consumer confidence”

Michael Archbold was CEO of GNC when Schneiderman launched his investigation and was on the front lines of the industry’s response. In a phone interview with NutraIngredients-USA, Archbold said the impact of this was “huge”for CNG. “It took a lot of management time, but the biggest overall impact has been the erosion of consumer confidence and the destruction of economic value for GNC and many other companies. And on top of that, a lot of people – of consumers – stopped taking the products and it could have harmed their health.

“The industry has always been viewed with a bit of skepticism, and this document has given skeptics something to point to and say, ‘See! We knew it! The paper was so damaging,” he said.

When asked what he would like to see happen now, Archbold said not only a retraction of the article by the newspaper, but also an acknowledgment and retraction of the New York Timesfor his coverage of the study.

the New York Timeswas contacted for comment but did not respond prior to publication.

The New York Attorney General’s office was also contacted for comment but did not respond before publication.

Archbold steered the company through stormy seas immediately after the AG investigation before stepping down in the summer of 2016. Looking back, Archbold said there was a silver lining to the AG investigation. NY GA.

“This event provided the impetus for the industry to adopt new standards and audits around plant-based products. We might have had these conversations eventually, but it sped everything up,” he said.

“I’m very happy that the industry as a whole now has these standardization processes, these auditing processes, but it shouldn’t have been an allegedly fraudulent study that caused this.”

DNA barcoding – the technology

As NutraIngredients-USA reported in 2013, DNA barcoding for testing plants is reliable, but only when performed on appropriate equipment and in combination with other established analytical tests.

Subjecting botanical extracts to DNA analysis is problematic because, although some extracts may contain DNA, it is often of poor quality or degraded to such an extent that it is impossible to perform proper authentication.

Other limitations of DNA technology are that i) it cannot determine between plant parts (leaf, stem, root – the DNA is the same), ii) it is not reliable for use in quantification, and iii) there is no definitive standards reference library.

Links to articles by Sciencecovering the allegations against Dr. Newmaster:

Science​, June 15, 2021: “When his suspicions went unanswered, this biologist decided to disavow his own study”

Science​, October 28, 2021: “DNA barcoding paper retracted after first author reports serious issues”

Science, February 2, 2022: “Failing the test: DNA barcoding brought botanist Steven Newmaster scientific fame and entrepreneurial success. Was it all based on fraud?”

* According to PubMed​, the 2013 BMC MedicineThe article has been cited 135 times. The highest number of citations occurred in 2018, with 28 citations. For 2020 and 2021, he was cited 13 and 14 times respectively

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